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DON’T BLINK - ROBERT FRANK


DON’T BLINK - ROBERT FRANK (Don't Blink - Robert Frank no Utsushita Jidai)


March 24, 2017
Q&A guest: Director Laura Israel


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                       Laura Israel, Frank's editor, archivist and now, cinematic biographer.   ©Koichi Mori

Before she found the perfect title for her documentary, Laura Israel had planned to call it Robert Frank, You Got Eyes. As she explained to FCCJ’s Q&A audience, “Jack Kerouac wrote that in the forward to ‘The Americans.’ We always knew it was a working title, and I was never really happy with it because I felt it was too old and over-used already. But Robert came up with the title. He was answering a journalist who asked him, ‘What would you tell young photographers?’ He said, ‘Keep your eyes open. Don’t blink.’”

Heads nodded approvingly around the room, not only because many of those present were photographers themselves, but also because the words seemed positively Frankian: deceptively simple, enduringly deep.

The Swiss-born New Yorker revolutionized the art of photography and independent film in the 1950s, with work that was personal, impulsive and (purposely) imperfect. In his 60-year career, he has documented the Beats, Welsh coal miners, Peruvian Indians, the Rolling Stones (infamously) and of course, the Americans.

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©FCCJ

Frank first came to fame in 1958 with the French publication of his seminal book “The Americans,” which was the result of a 9-month, 10,000-mile, 30-state journey through his adopted country (funded by a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship). Culled from 767 rolls of film and 27,000 images, the book’s racially-charged depictions of America’s downtrodden, lonely and marginalized, were haunting and controversial. One critic dubbed Frank’s work a “sad poem for sick people,” while another slammed the “meaningless blur, grainy, muddy exposure, drunken horizons and general sloppiness.” But “The Americans” is now considered the most influential photo book of the 20th century.

Frank’s sympathies have always been with “people who struggle,” and he has portrayed them with unfailing empathy, as well as unblinking honesty. Yet he has not been a willing subject himself. In one scene is Israel’s film, we see him, circa 1988, staring into a video lens. “I hate these f***ing interviews,” he complains to his interlocutor, getting increasingly irritated. Finally he growls, “I can’t stand to be pinned in front of a camera, because I do that to people. I don’t want it to be done to me!” And he gets up and walks out of frame.

But Don’t Blink presents a different side of Robert Frank. A sprightly 90 years old when the film was made, and a little more relaxed in front of the camera than he was in the 1980s, the irascible, reclusive subject of Israel’s immersive documentary reveals he has a surprisingly sanguine character.

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Photo of Robert Frank by Lisa Rinzler, copyright Assemblage Films LLC

It helps that the woman behind the camera is his long-time collaborator. Israel has been his editor and archivist-preservationist for nearly 30 years, and their intimacy has allowed her to tap into a staggering wealth of archival images and footage, as well as to capture Frank in a variety of settings over three years, from his New York loft to his isolated cabin in Nova Scotia.

Asked how the project came about, Israel explained, “I went with my first film [Windfall, 2009] to the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, and [took part] in the mentoring program there. I met with a writer, Tue Steen Müller. He was kind of a gruff, older guy and had a lot of personality, like Robert Frank. He wasn’t particularly happy with my film [which looks at a small town’s troubles with wind turbines]. I was intimidated, so I told him, ‘I thought we would get along, because I work with Robert Frank.’ He lunged over the table at me and said, ‘That’s your next film! You’re doing a film about Robert Frank!’”

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Photo of Robert Frank by Lisa Rinzler, copyright Assemblage Films LLC

Despite Israel’s resistance, and initially, that of Frank, the project took off just days after she mentioned it to him. And did he demand any changes, once the film was finished? “No changes,” Israel told the FCCJ crowd. “He said, ‘I really like the music, and you made the photographs come to life.’”

Don’t Blink is like a visual game of free association that pays tribute to Frank’s own style, cut together as if it were one of the restless artist’s frequent road trips, with rapid-fire montages of his photographic and film work, from his fashion-snapping years with Harper’s Bazaar and his freelance photojournalism, to his handmade-style films and his friendships with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and other assorted counterculture artists, as well as with the everyday people who continue to fascinate him.

Israel discussed the accomplishment of putting the documentary together. A veteran editor herself, she said, “I worked with an editor, which I would recommend to any filmmaker. It was a lot of footage, and Robert gave us access to all of his work, and he’s very prolific. We set up an editing room with all his books, all his photos, all his films, and we surrounded ourselves with Robert Frank for a year and a half. It was wonderful. But when we see the film now, we look at each other and say, ‘Whew. I’m glad we don’t have to do that again!’”

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                         ©Koichi Mori

One journalist asked about the impact of the 9/11 terrorist attack on Frank’s life and work, and why it wasn’t included in the film. “Robert wasn’t in New York around 9/11,” responded Israel. “He was in Nova Scotia, and he returned immediately. He brought back that beautiful film about the guy who delivers papers [Paper Route, 2002; excerpted in Don’t Blink]. I had been there on the Lower East Side on 9/11, and that film means so much to me. After 9/11, seeing that simplicity and beauty and that kind of life really helped me. It was very cathartic to work on that film, editing with Robert.”

It turned out that Frank wasn’t the only fan of the film’s soundtrack. With each subsequent audience question, the filmmaker was praised for her musical choices. Asked how she managed to afford so many well-known names, Israel explained, “I worked with a wonderful music producer, Hal Willner, and his associate, Rachel Fox. After Hal saw the first 30 minutes of the film, he was very excited and said, ‘Okay, I’ll call up Bob Dylan’s manager.’” And I was like, ‘Okay, go ahead and do that and we’ll see how that goes.’ [laughs] He called me the next week and said, ‘Bob Dylan said yes.’ After we got Bob Dylan, it seemed that all the musicians, either by design or by pure luck, had a connection to Robert Frank. This was the rare project where you call and ask someone for a favor, and they thank you for calling and asking them to help.

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Israel with the film's Japanese poster.  ©FCCJ

“Let me give a few examples: Charles Mingus — someone told us ‘Sue Mingus [his widow] never gives his music to any film. You’ll never get that music. Never, ever.’ Then we found out that Robert actually introduced her to Mingus, and he was at the wedding and everything. So she said yes right away. Yo La Tengo — I didn’t know until later that they had done a song called ‘Pablo and Andrea’ [the names of Frank’s two children, who died tragically young], and that they had gone to school with them [at the school featured in Conversations in Vermont, 1969]. Tom Waits — we found out that he was very excited about the one song we used. So we said, ‘We’ll use two, then.’ And the Kills — I really love the song ‘The Way New York Used to Be,’ and we approached Alison Mosshart, and she said ‘I would do anything for Robert Frank. I would never say no to Robert Frank.’ So all these things fell together.”

The ranks of Robert Frank fans are bound to swell after the Japanese release of Don’t Blink, although he has long had a devoted following here. Impressive not only for its historical immersiveness, the film also delivers positive messages about aging and creativity. Frank has continued to create at an exhaustive pace, embracing work for its energizing and its healing properties, and is still finding new stories to tell about his fellow outsider Americans. “These are good people,” he says, “these marginal people who live at the edge. They interest me.” And then he snaps another shot to add to his one-of-a-kind collection.

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Photo of Robert Frank by Lisa Rinzler, copyright Assemblage Films LLC

Press Coverage

THE ONDEKOZA


THE ONDEKOZA (Za Ondekoza)


December 14, 2016
Q&A guests: Taiko pioneer Eitetsu Hayashi and remastering producer Tetsuya Nakagawa


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Eitetsu Hayashi, pioneer of taiko drumming, and Shochiku's Tetsuya Nakagawa, who oversaw the digital remastering of the film.
©Mance Thompson

Behind many great works of art are dark stories about their creation, and The Ondekoza is no exception. Gracing the FCCJ with his presence — despite having skipped the first two screenings of the film, at the Venice and Tokyo Filmex festivals — Ondekoza’s star, taiko pioneer Eitetsu Hayashi, spoke eloquently about the genesis of the musical group and the eponymous film that pays tribute to its extraordinary accomplishments. There is no hint on screen about its true backdrop: that of a powerful mentor and his cruel exploitation of the young.

Thirty-five years after its heralded premiere and subsequent disappearance from public view, the musical masterpiece The Ondekoza now returns in a blaze of cinematic glory, thanks to Shochiku, which first commissioned the documentary in 1979, and has now digitally restored it, in 4K, to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of its director, Tai Kato (1916-1985).

Kato had begun shooting in 1979 and continued for two years, following the young people who had formed the Ondekoza Japanese music ensemble in 1971 on Sado Island, north of Niigata, under the leadership of Tagayasu Den. The teens had been lured north by Den’s plan to build a liberal arts college on the island, and had decided, despite their lack of musical training, to raise funding by performing updated versions of Japanese standards, particularly by forming a tight unit of taiko drummers.

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Hayashi generously detailed his behind-the-scenes experiences.    ©Mance Thompson

The first half of The Ondekoza follows the group’s daily routines, as well as the rehearsals and concerts in local halls, and the efforts to adapt traditional folk pieces to fit their burgeoning repertoire. They live communally, work and train together in Spartan conditions, craft their own instruments, create their own choreography and sew their own costumes. They run together, too, building up physical stamina, as they traverse many miles across the island’s rugged terrain. (They would go on to run the Boston Marathon each year from 1975 – 1981, playing drums immediately after crossing the finish line.)

In its second half, the film positively explodes in vivid colors across the screen, as the group performs a series of dazzling setpieces — many on sets designed by legendary designer Tadanori Yokoo and Chiyo Umeda — including Devil Sword Dance (Oni kenbai), O-Shichi of the Tower (Yagura no O-Shichi), Changing Cherry Blossom Song (Sakura Hensokyoku), The Big Taiko (Odaiko), Monochrome II (Monokuromu II), Float Orchestra (Yatai bayashi) and Tsugaru Shamisen (Tsugarujamisen). Kato’s unique camera techniques heighten the visual brilliance of the numbers, capturing the performers as they achieve astonishing levels of virtuosity, transforming the screen into a perfect expression of art’s transcendent power.

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Perhaps the film’s most spectacular sequences involve scenes of drummers, clad in loincloths, beating enormous taiko drums, encircled by leaping flames of hellfire. While most people assume that groups of drummers playing together in disciplined unison is the Japanese tradition, it first occurred after WWII. Eitetsu Hayashi himself is credited with originating the wadaiko form, in which a carefully choreographed group (like those in the film) plays large taiko drums, often with their backs to the audience for greater dramatic effect.

Speaking at the Q&A session following the screening, which he had watched, Hayashi explained, “In the 1960s, I was a huge Beatles fan and had my own amateur band. Since I had that experience and a sense of rhythm, I wound up supervising the drum sequences in the film, and composing the music for them. Usually with musical films, you record the music first, then you lip synch and match the dancing to the music. But the director wanted to shoot everything live. We only had one camera, so we had to shoot [again and again] from various angles. With wadaiko, there’s a lot of intensity when you play, and you’re working up a sweat. When you cut to shoot from another angle, you have to work up to the same intensity again, so I had to play the entire piece from the beginning each time. It was a very strenuous shoot.”

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Hayashi demonstrates the now-familiar taiko drumming stance, with sticks up above the head.      ©FCCJ

After spending 11 years with the Ondekoza, Hayashi would go on to cofound the globally acclaimed taiko troop Kodo, before commencing a solo career. He has since moved from one triumph to the next, beginning in 1984, when he became the first-ever solo taiko performer to play with the American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Renowned for his virtuosity, his physical stamina and his range, which fuses traditional, classical, jazz, rock and world music, his performances have influenced such popular musician-percussionists as the Blue Man group and Stomp.

But before the flourishing career and the happy circumstances that have finally brought about the release of The Ondekoza, there was the agony. Hayashi admitted, “I had qualms about coming here to see it tonight. It took a lot of courage for me to watch it again. It reminds me of those days when we were putting our heart and soul into our performances … not knowing that the film would not be released. My life changed drastically after that.”

Pressed to elaborate, he told the audience, who sat transfixed throughout, “What you see up on the screen may seem like we came together for the love of art, and aspirations to become great performers, but that’s not the case. We didn’t set out to become professional musicians, but the leader of the group [Den] was very strong, very determined, a bit of a dictator. He’d been one of the students who led the student protests [at a university in Tokyo], and he was draconian. He did not allow any TV, radio or newspapers, we weren’t free to spend time with friends outside the group, we were not paid, we did not have any vacations or time off.

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              Nakagawa, manager of Shochiku’s Home Entertainment & Licensing Division, is the man responsible for working to clear the myriad
copyright and other issues that had prevented the film from being shown more than a handful of times since 1981. ©Mance Thompson

“It was our duty to listen to whatever he had to say, and to follow his orders. But we thought the money we were earning [from performances] was going to the establishment of the college. It was an honor, back then, to earn money overseas, and we were grateful to him. However, he gradually changed his mind. The college never came to fruition. And the group became like a cult. As cults go, as dictatorships go, it was impossible to escape. We had no money, no boats, so we couldn’t leave.

“We were increasingly gaining attention overseas — even Seiji Ozawa, who was conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra then, invited us to appear together in 1976, and we won many accolades. After that, we started to perform in very large venues, going on tours, even appearing on Broadway. At that point, the leader thought, ‘We should make a film about ourselves and take it to the Cannes Film Festival, to show how successful we’ve been overseas.’

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                                                          © FCCJ

 “So a large amount of money was borrowed to make a film. But once it was completed, the leader said, ‘I don’t like this film. I’m going to direct my own film.’ There was no means to return the money we’d borrowed to finance it, and no way to continue operations with the Ondekoza. The group members finally voiced our concerns, and the dictator that he was, he said, ‘You’re all fired.’ So the group ultimately dissolved, which meant that Shochiku couldn’t release the film.”

Before Hayashi provided this painful context for The Ondekoza, the FCCJ audience had been able to experience the film’s lasting artistic achievement without the shadows cast by its backstory. That the backstory has now deepened their appreciation is beyond a doubt; but its troubling questions linger, much as they did in Damien Chazelle’s 2014 Whiplash, another film about a mentor’s monstrously autocratic abuse of musicians, particularly one young drummer, and the toll that it takes upon his soul.

 

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Hayashi and Nakagawa pose with one of the three remaining original posters for the film (right), designed by Tadanori Yokoo.  
©Mance Thompson

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                                                   ©1989 "The Ondekoza" Film Partners

DDT: WE ARE JAPANESE WRESTLERS


DDT: WE ARE JAPANESE WRESTLERS (Oretachi Bunkakei Puro-Resu DDT)


November 21, 2016
Q&A guests: Co-directors Muscle Sakai and Tetsuaki Matsue


 86A3367                                                                  Super Sasadango Machine presents a riveting preshow event.          ©Mance Thompson

The Film Committee is committed to presenting the widest possible range of work to our audiences, and there’s no better proof than our sneak peek of DDT: We Are Japanese Wrestlers. We steeled ourselves for criticism that we shouldn’t be screening sports movies — especially when they’re not about Olympics athletes — but the criticism never came.

On the contrary, we discovered that a surprising number of FCCJ members are fans of professional wrestling, and they seemed thrilled to watch a theatrical documentary about one of Japan’s most popular teams, the Dramatic Dream Team, on the club's premises. They were also looking forward to the special preshow event, which the DDT’s legion of followers and Samurai TV had helped popularize.

From its beginnings with the great Rikidozan and Giant Baba, through Antonio Inoki, the spirit and presentation of Japanese “proresu” have been more high-minded, with fewer theatrics, than the western version. Still considered primarily a combat sport (thanks to Inoki’s introduction of traditional martial arts into the mix) proresu matches in Japan have always been considered real competitions, with grueling, body-slamming, high-flying action.

DDT, founded in 1997 by Sanshiro Takagi, began injecting matches with a far greater theatrical verve, incorporating stories and comedy, striking a delicate balance between the hair-raising and the hilarious, and bringing the team's style closer to the nonstop mayhem of western wrestling. Their astounding athleticism, creative costuming and dazzling choreography soon made DDT one of the top names in indie wrestling. DDT was dubbed “cultural” puroresu for its theatrics, as well as for Super Sasadango Machine’s introductory PowerPoint presentations before every tournament. Yes, PowerPoints.

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Only the third pro wrestler in its 71-year history to appear at FCCJ — following Rikidozan and Inoki — SS Machine himself burst into the screening room in all his green-spangled glory, and took the stage to wild applause. He raised his arm and…click, began his PowerPoint show, custom-created for the FCCJ crowd. For the next 30 minutes, the entire room was in a state of extreme merriment, with each new slide prompting a fresh round of appreciative chortles (along with giggles, guffaws and a few howls).

It was such a two-thumbs-up performance, such a combination of serious and silly, informative and entertaining, and all before the main event had begun, that no one wanted SS Machine to leave. (The senior managing director of Sakai Precision Molding in Niigata Prefecture, SS Machine is also an MBA holder, although this is not public knowledge, and a TV comedy talent.)

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     Ever the professionals, SS Machine and interpreter Taro Goto
rehearse their timing before the event.    ©Koichi Mori

For those of us who have never attended a live match (ahem, guilty), and wondered how “puroresu” could have grown into a $120 million sport, SS Machine’s slideshow made it crystal clear. After colorfully introducing the wrestlers and the documentary team, including the “outstanding filmmaker” Muscle Sakai (SS Machine himself), he laid out the feud that erupted in 2014 between DDT (which he estimated made only $5 million last year) and New Japan Pro Wrestling ($32 million), the country's No. 1 agency, founded by Antonio Inoki. Apparently, New Japan’s MVP Hiroshi Tanahashi had fanned the fires of the feud by “sending shockwaves through the industry” with remarks slamming DDT’s low-level technique: “We’re competing at a whole other level from you.”

DDT decided to offer Tanahashi a chance to prove his supremacy, so invited him to a playoff. “It’s not easy being a little company taking on a big corporation,” SS Machine explained. “So we adopted the Lancaster strategy: to find the opponent’s vulnerability, and concentrate the attack on that weak point. Unfortunately, however, Tanahashi has no vulnerabilities.” The wrestler-filmmaker then described how he’d been at work, watching a plastic injection mold machine, when he realized how DDT could beat the MVP: “Let’s hypothesize that Tanahashi is the pro wrestling mold, and that we oppose this extremely precise instrument by pitting him against the unpredictable element of Ken Ohka [DDT’s least-experienced wrestler]. Then we may have a shot at victory. Businesses, whether large or small, show their true colors when they’re faced with a crisis. Did DDT’s Lancaster strategy work? You’ll have to watch the documentary.”

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             SS Machine illustrates DDT's Lancaster strategy.                ©Mance Thompson

It was a most excellent setup for DDT: We Are Japanese Wrestlers, which opens with restless jumps from one contest to the next, as if it’s suffering from attention-deficit disorder, which quickly orients viewers to the style of coverage favored by Japan's premier sports channel, Samurai TV, where the team has a wildly popular hour-long timeslot. Documenting a year of matches and backstage stories, the film reveals that these rough-n-tumble customers have very soft underbellies indeed (they even submit to “popularity ranking” contests, much like boy bands). By the time Ken Ohka and Harashima finally get their chance to go up against the bruisers of New Japan Pro Wrestling in late 2015, the audience is resoundingly on their side. Not quite a classic underdog contest, since the DDT have fought their way to a No. 2 ranking, there is still much at stake. And Tanahashi makes the perfect villain.

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                                              Co-directors Sakai and Matsue share a laugh.         ©Mance Thompson

As DDT approaches its 20th anniversary, the film is a fittingly scruffy tribute to the team’s staying power.

Following the screening, Muscle Sakai (SS Machine in street clothes) returned with Tetsuaki Matsue, his co-director and the acclaimed documentarian behind award-winning films Annyong Kimchi, Live Tape, Tokyo Drifter and Flashback Memories 3D. The first question was about how Matsue got involved in the project. “The DDT president asked me about making a documentary in the spring of 2014,” he said. “He suggested following the team for a year. But I thought it would be interesting to follow one subject, and I was always fascinated with Muscle Sakai, whom I’ve known for 10 years.”

He later expanded: “In summer, Mr. Sakai was in the ring at Ryogoku and announced that we were doing the film, and said that it would be in 3D. At the time, it wasn’t a joke. I had contacted specialists and we had shot for about a year. I started editing it, but it just didn’t work as a film. That’s when I proposed refocusing on Muscle instead. I always felt that there was something about his performance and aesthetic that was similar to my approach to documentary. I also felt like the [DDT-New Japan] match was a nice narrative center.”

Matsue went on to explain, “I’m 39 right now, and Muscle is also 39. If you look at the whole DDT culture, there’s something about it that looks like a college festival. What they do requires such an expenditure of energy; they put everything into it. There’s a kind of exuberance there that I was drawn to. The subject matter is so enjoyable that, even at my age, I was able to tackle this project. I think this film might appeal to people in our age group as they look back, nostalgically, at the phenomenon of going all out.”

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                                                                                                                                        ©Mance Thompson

Asked how he got into proresu, when he clearly had a lot of other options, Sakai admitted, “The president of DDT asked me if I wanted to try wrestling. At the time, I was a university student and I was the team’s videographer. Mr. Takagi came to me and said, ‘You’re a big guy. Why don’t you try wrestling?’ And here I am.”

But where did the PowerPoint presentations come from? Said Sakai, speaking metaphorically: “As pro wrestlers and mold makers, we’re often overwhelmed by these big corporations who come at us with complex marketing and advertising strategies, and PowerPoint presentations with business ideologies. They come at us with graphs and try to embroil us in something we don’t understand, and I felt it was important to understand. I gave my first PPT presentation in 2014.”

A DDT fan in the crowd asked whether he thinks things have changed, now that Tanahashi has fought against the underdogs. “There are a lot of inter-organizational feuds,” Sakai admitted. “Ever since that incident, I’ve been asked to officiate and be a peacemaker. Whenever there’s some kind of trouble, they bring me in as a troubleshooter. I’ll continue to serve in any capacity that may help.”

Matsue was asked whether he thought Ken Ohka had international appeal, and had chosen to highlight him in the film for that reason. “We actually filmed a lot of the DDT wrestlers,” responded the director, “and it wasn’t our intention that Ohka-san would be so central to the story. He just kind of ended up that way. Some of the wrestlers look like stars on screen, either because they emit a certain star wattage or because they seem to invite the spotlight. Ohka-san doesn’t have star wattage, but it seemed that the camera always turned to him. I thought, that’s the kind of character we want.”

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                                                  Sakai lines up the nameplates for a selfie with FCCJ's famous banner.                     ©Mance Thompson

Sakai added, “If he were the type of wrestler who deserved international acclaim, I believe that WWE would’ve approached him by now. So the probability of him going international is pretty low. But you never know. Maybe after this FCCJ screening, the film will get seen overseas and a big promoter will discover him.”

This prompted a journalist to ask whether the English title had been chosen with a global audience in mind. Said Sakai: “In Japan, whether you’re wrestling in the DDT or New Japan Pro Wrestling style, I think a lot of Japanese fans are familiar with a lot of the elements in the film. But we chose to put ‘Japanese’ in the title because we’re proud of our wrestling, and we want international audiences to see it.”

Matsue admitted: “Sakai-san came up with the English title and he really pushed for it. Initially, I had in mind calling it DDT: Ego Search." He laughed, "But I’m actually awful at coming up with titles for my own films. Everyone always winds up disagreeing.”

We may never see this sport at the Olympics, but that doesn’t mean its practitioners aren’t every bit as dedicated to training and determined to win as any Olympic athlete — nor that its many millions of fans aren’t as justifiably devoted. Why should trampoline and synchronized swimming be the only contests that inspire levity during the Olympic Games? It’s too late for 2020, but with athletic prowess of this heart-pounding level, surely there’s an outside chance for pro wrestling on the next go-around?  

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                                                            The directors brandish their new FCCJ honorary membership cards.         ©Mance Thompson      

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                                                                              ©DDTプロレスリング

 

Media Coverage

 

 


CHAMBARA: THE ART OF JAPANESE  SWORDPLAY (Jidaigeki wa Shinazu: Chambara Bigakko)


 September 12, 2016
Q&A guests: Director Sadao Nakajima, fight choreographer Mitsuhiko Seike, Toei Tsurugi Association


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Members of the elite Toei Tsurugikai gave a dazzling live performance after the screening, and then struck ferocious poses with Nakajima (center) and Seike (left). These highly trained swordsmen and women are the real stars of Kyoto’s action films, putting the thrills and chills into the fight scenes, and elevating the performances of the top-billed stars.©Mance Thompson

 The term sensei is often wielded too lightly in Japan, a catch-all title meant as a demonstration of respect for one’s elders and/or betters that seems to find its way onto the end of altogether too many names, whether deserved or not.

But sometimes, the title fits perfectly, and Sadao Nakajima — always “Nakajima Sensei” or “Professor Nakajima” — wears it well. A veteran Toei director, having helmed over 60 films in nearly 60 years in the industry, he is a cult figure, a fount of knowledge, a veritable walking encyclopedia of chambara lore. (Speaking of walking, to see the 82-year-old stroll into FCCJ’s screening room is to see the picture of crackling-with-youth energy, and it seems certain that his cane is just for show — perhaps, I imagined, there was a hidden blade inside, just like the shikomi gatana carried by one of his characters).

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                                                                      The professor speaks to a rapt audience.  Photo left ©Koichi Mori; right ©Rob Nava-Moreno

In his new documentary, Chambara: The Art of Japanese Swordplay, the professor proves to be not only an impassioned scholar, but also a most affable screen presence, as he relates milestones in the history of Japan’s homegrown swashbuckler film (chambara being the sound of clashing swords), and trades anecdotes with an array of authorities (swordfight artists, actors, armorers, historians, critics). A must-see for all fans of spectacular swordsmanship, Chambara is also a veritable master class in everything jidaigeki (samurai period) film, providing just the layman’s approach necessary for those of us (ahem, guilty) who have remained willfully ignorant of the medium’s many delights.

As we learn, Japan’s first-ever jidaigeki was screened in Kyoto in February 1908. Directed by the great Shozo Makino, an industry pioneer whose son Masahiro would become Nakajima’s mentor, the one-reel drama featured kabuki actors in the roles of rival samurai. Almost nothing of Makino’s work has survived, but the swashbuckler continued to flourish with the rise of the samurai, ninja and yakuza genres.

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                                                                                                                                     The Toei Tsurugikai in action.   ©Mance Thompson

As he traces the origins and growth of the Kyoto-centric industry, Nakajima treats Chambara viewers to rare footage from a wealth of early and later films, and compares the styles of the major stars of each era, from Matsunosuke Onoe (“Medama Matsu”), Tsumabasaburo Bando (“Bantsuma”), Chiezo Kataoka, Utaemon Ichikawa and Arashi Kanjuro (“Arakan”) to Raizo Ichikawa, Jushiro Konoe, Kinnosuke Nakamura, Shintaro Katsu and Hiroki Matsukata. Naturally, much screen time is also devoted to the enormous impact of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune on the genre (not all commentators view it as positive).

At its peak in the late 1950s, there were 100 professional swordfighters working on Kyoto’s sound stages, and jidaigeki would account for over 150 film releases each year. But those days are done. In Ken Ochiai’s elegiac Uzumasa Limelight, which we screened at FCCJ in 2014 (and in which Nakajima has a small role essentially playing himself), we see that the skilled bladesmen of Kyoto are running out of work as the jidaigeki industry dries up. It’s no wonder that the swordsmen and women of the Toei Tsurugikai, an elite team started in 1952 at the Kyoto Toei Studio to develop tate, or chambara techniques using kata swords, now number very few, and must support themselves in a variety of realms, not just on film.

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                                                                        Famed fight choreographer Mitsuhiko Seike.  Photo left ©FCCJ; right, ©Mance Thompson

Not surprisingly, the first questions asked of Nakajima and famed fight choreographer Mitsuhiko Seike after the screening of the documentary concerned the future of jidaigeki. Both men were fairly upbeat. Seike noted, “While it’s true that the number of chambara films are decreasing year by year, we have the Jidaigeki Senmon Channel on cable TV, which specializes in jidaigeki programming. Often they air classics and reruns of old shows. But in the past few years, they’ve started producing their own shows. These are sometimes adaptations of classics or jidaigeki manga, or they’re series based on famous novels. They feel slightly different from what we used to see, but I think that’s one avenue for the future of the genre.”

One journalist commented: “This movie’s full of old men complaining about how good times will never come back. But Chihiro Yamamoto, star of Uzumasa Limelight, is in the film, and tonight we’ve just seen a demonstration in which a woman struck down three men. So is chambara’s future perhaps in women’s hands?”

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Nakajima nodded and admitted, “It’s true that the films have been male centered. After the war, they became much more conscious of the female audience, but the strange truth is that in Japan’s history, especially during the Muromachi Period, women really shined in real life. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been portrayed in films enough, except in the o-oku stories about the harems in the inner chambers of the shogunate. I started the whole series of o-oku films, and yet the sad fact is that these women are still seen from the perspective of men, and the films tend to be tragedies. Even with a female protagonist, they’re still seen through the prism of the male gaze.”

He continued, “But we’ve seen a lot more women being interested in history [the so-called “female history buff” or rekijo, trend that many have seen as empowering for young women], and there are many young women who are drawn to the Japanese sword … and the chambara culture in general. So I think that’s encouraging.”

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                                                                                            ©Mance Thompson

To a suggestion from the audience that Toei should consider launching a “jidaigeki renaissance,” and hire young directors to reinvigorate the genre, Nakajima responded, “I don’t see Toei doing that. Financing both production and distribution in Japan is often under the same umbrella, so everyone wants to do what’s most profitable for the least risk. They only invest in what is very safe. Those of us in the older generation must create an environment in which [chambara] filmmakers feel they can thrive, and perhaps we should provide case-study examples of how these films can succeed. I’ve been asking myself how I can best create that kind of environment for younger filmmakers to be able to carry on the torch.”

Chambara: The Art of Japanese Swordplay reveals the secrets of how those shiny stage kata are made, and discussion returned several times to these potent symbols of the samurai soul. One audience member asked whether real swords were ever used. “Yes,” said Nakajima, to audible gasps from the audience. “But never to swing them. I used them to capture the light reflected on the blades, but we would never use them in action. It’s simply too dangerous. When you see and handle a real sword, you’re confronted with how frightening it is. It’s too intense and emotional. There’s a power that Japanese swords have, and we can’t imagine swinging them around in a movie.”

In the old days, noted an elderly audience member, “we didn’t hear the sounds of slashing and we didn’t see so much blood. Why did this change? Have chambara been pursuing an ever-greater level of reality to make them more popular today?”

Nakajima explained that the sword material itself had changed. “During the postwar period, they used takemitsu, basically wooden swords made from a type of oak,” he said. “The sound on set was thus the blunt sound of wood on wood. We didn’t replace them with sound effects. It wasn’t until 1960 or so that we started replacing the sound with something more metallic. There hasn’t been much evolution since then… But we have to remember that the world was a different place in the period in which jidaigeki are set, and they could hear things — the sound of geta, or the wind blowing — that we hear in a different way today. Most of these sounds have now been wiped out by music on the soundtracks, too.”

Added Seike, “Today, a lot of the blood is done with computer graphics, but we still use pumps and fake blood, and often, we try something different with them. But you’re providing entertainment for the audience, and it’s difficult to answer the question of ‘what is most real?’ I have no doubt that some films will continue to experiment with what works best for a particular film, but I don’t see this as an industry-wide trend.”

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Mance Thompson, photographer and ninja specialist,
gets Nakajima's autograph.  ©Koichi Mori

After mentioning that jidaigeki once attracted the biggest talents from literature and theater, a situation that is glaringly different today, Nakajima obliged one audience member with a recommendation for a couple of films to watch: “I think Samurai Hustle I and II are good, because even though they don’t have much chambara action, they really show what it was like to be a samurai, and show a new aspect of what jidaigeki can do. The action sequences aren’t too exaggerated; they maintain a certain reality. I think this offers a new direction for jidaigeki.”

Although he didn’t say it, Sadao Nakajima surely hopes that Chambara: The Art of Japanese Swordplay can also play a role in suggesting new directions. At the very least, it should help swashbuckle up interest in the genre among younger generations, as well as among those, like me, who didn’t realize quite what they were missing until now.

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Media Coverage

 

KAMPAI! FOR THE LOVE OF SAKE


KAMPAI! FOR THE LOVE OF SAKE


 June 28, 2016
Q&A guests: Director Mirai Konishi, brewer Kosuke Kuji and sake evangelist John Gauntner


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                      Brewer, evangelist and director, enjoying a laugh about potential sequels to the film.              ©Mance Thompson

I may be a teetotaler, but I can appreciate a good alcohol-themed story when I see one, and Kampai! For the Love of Sake is exactly that — although it’s really four stories, not just one. And as we discovered during the Q&A session after our screening, sake tales are as tasty, and as ancient, as the drink itself.

Nihonshu (the correct Japanese term) has a long history, and brewers faithfully followed the process created in the 15th century until the popularity of the drink began declining in the 1990s, partly because of the very constancy of the industry. Many breweries went out of business, or began producing beer or shochu intstead; but just in time for others, a revolution was born. Although the majority of Japan’s 1,200-odd sake breweries are still small and family-owned, drastic changes have been occurring as younger kuramoto (brewery owners) stepped into their father’s shoes. [Yes, it’s still a man’s business, but more on that below.]

Following the international success of an array of documentaries about food, especially Jiro Dreams of Sushi, along with the 2013 registration of washoku (the “traditional dietary cultures of the Japanese”) on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list, it’s no wonder that sake — an essential ingredient, accompaniment and complement to Japanese cuisine — is now in the spotlight.

Mirai Konishi, a Hollywood-based film journalist, marks his feature directing debut with Kampai!, which was picked up for international distribution following its world premiere at the 2015 San Sebastian Film Festival and will be opening in the US in August. But he readily admits that he was not at all a sake connoisseur when he began the process. Quite the contrary: “I started the film because I had a big complex about sake. I’d been living in LA for 23 years, and every time I went to a Japanese restaurant, friends would ask me which sake to choose. I didn’t have a clue.”

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Top: Gaunter (©FCCJ), Left: Kuji (©Koichi Mori), Right: Konishi (©Mance Thompson)

A certified sake outsider, then, Konishi intriguingly chose to explore the rarefied, mysterious and secretive world of nihonshu through the eyes of three distinctive outsiders who have devoted themselves to its production and dissemination around the globe. Taking us on a fascinating journey from a small brewery in the mountains of Kyoto to a modern Japanese restaurant in London to a bustling sake-tasting event in the center of Tokyo, the film illustrates how these unique men, two of them non-Japanese, have turned their love affairs with sake into a celebration of Japan’s finest progressive traditions.

The breakout star of the film — and perhaps the sake universe — is fifth-generation kuramoto Kosuke Kuji, of Nanbu Bijin Brewery in Iwate. The director met Kuji in LA, where the brewer himself was an outsider, but seemed to gain instant insider status despite speaking little English. “I was amazed by his vitality and energy,” recalled Konishi. “He also had a lot of pride in his brewery, without being arrogant about it. I decided I wanted to know more.” Thus, Kampai! was born.

In the film, Kuji vividly recalls his struggles convincing his father to let him “take sake to the next level” by applying the latest scientific knowledge to develop new labels, as well as to expand distribution overseas. His sake has gone on to win national and international awards, including the top prize in the Honjozo category of the International Wine Challenge, which he’ll pick up in London in early July. The ebullient Kuji also earns bragging rights for earning Nanbu Bijin the first Kosher certification in the industry, and for the brewery’s creation of “no sugar added” plum sake.

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Also profiled in Kampai! is Ohio-born sake “evangelist” John Gauntner, recognized as the world’s leading non-Japanese expert. The first foreign Master of Sake Tasting, as well as a certified Sake Expert Assessor, Gauntner recalls in the film his unlikely path to his calling, and discusses the development of his Sake Professional Course, which has educated hundreds around the world, including the owners and operators of many foreign sake-centric stores.

British brewer Philip Harper, the first non-Japanese to earn the prestigious title of toji, or master sake brewer, is the third outsider profiled in Kampai! Harper was hired to help save the faltering Kinoshita Brewery in Kyoto, and in the film, he draws parallels between his early life amid nature and his current life, while taking viewers through the deceptively simple process of brewing.

During the Q&A, one FCCJ audience member wondered whether the film’s three outsiders were in any way representative of today’s sake world, especially in their openness. Kuji jumped in to confirm that, “In a nutshell, we’re all strange and weird. That’s why we could make the film.” On a more serious note, he explained, “Toward the end of the 1990s, we had this idea to take sake abroad, and that was considered unusual. Nihonshu was still very popular, but thinking about the future, we had this ambitious aspiration to sell more abroad.”

Gauntner added, “I don’t think the world of sake was actually closed. It’s just that the business was doing so well until the mid-90s, there was no reason for brewers to advertise, or open up and talk to people so much. But over the past 10 to 20 years, a lot more kuramoto have been open, inviting people to come and visit them, making contact with the rest of the world because the need is there.”

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With the poster for the film, coming to screens around the world.                ©FCCJ

One viewer asked why the film was so overwhelmingly male-focused, and whether the industry itself was still male dominated. Kuji replied, “Yes, women are still on the outside. But there are brewery owners who are female, and there are quite a few women toji — including Morikiri Rumiko, who makes the famous Rumiko no Sake.” He then joked that Konishi’s next film should focus on women in the industry, and suggested it be called Kampai Women!

“Female toji are really doing well these days,” added Gauntner. “Out of about 1,200 breweries, I think there are 50 female toji, and a lot of them are really technically adept.”

Sake has traditionally been strongly associated with Shintoism, and several viewers queried the absence of a religious context in the film. Konishi apologized for the oversight, admitting that he had travelled around Japan for the very first time during production of the film, and hadn’t realized how strong the connection was. Said Kuji: “At the beginning of the film, you can see a long set of stairs. Those lead to the shrine behind my house. Back in ancient times, sake was made a Shinto shrines. I now regret not introducing my friend, who’s a Shinto priest, to Konishi-san. He should make another sequel: God, Sake and Kampai!

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Sake-tasting partygoers (top left: ©FCCJ, top right: ©Koichi Mori, bottom: ©Mance Thompson)

Asked whether there were still myths and misconceptions about nihonshu overseas, Gauntner replied: “I’ve been talking about sake for so long, it’s kind of hard to surprise me anymore. I try to anticipate misconceptions and counteract them. However, many people have no idea how it’s made — some think it’s distilled. And many people think it should always be served hot. Those are deeply rooted misunderstandings.”

Kuji recalled that the biggest surprise for him, was discovering that Japanese living in the US were a major source of misleading information. “They would always say, ‘Wow, Kuji-san, your sake is fantastic! It’s nothing like the sake being sold here, which contains preservatives and tastes awful.’ It’s only the Japanese living overseas who think this. Huge mistake. There’s not a single brewery in Japan that would put preservatives in sake. We don’t need to. We heat it [pasteurize] during production, and then it doesn’t go bad.”

Whither sake’s fortunes in the future? Will the washoku-led boom help overseas sales? According to Kuji, there has been a boom in new Japanese restaurants abroad following the UNESCO registration, but they are being opened primarily by non-Japanese as business opportunities. “Still, it’s wonderful for our industry, since they all sell sake, and demand has risen.”

According to Gauntner, “If you look at sake’s popularity overseas, it’s been holding steady for the past decade or so, before the washoku registration, although that will help. But if you look at industry statistics, what’s really interesting is the premium sakes — honjozojunmaishu and the four ginjo types together — are growing fairly steadily, on average, about 10% a year. And that’s probably 35% of the market. The remaining 65% of the market, the futsushu, that’s been contracting for a while, but the rate of contraction is slowing down. But premium sake is really on the increase, in terms of production, consumption and popularity, so the future of sake is quite bright.”

kampai mance-32Kuji delivers the party's kampai.  ©Mance Thompson

However, when they were asked whether the industry is facing any major issues, several stumbling blocks emerged. Explained Kuji, “The biggest problem is the structure of the industry and government. The ministry that supervises all alcohol is not the Agriculture Ministry, but the National Tax Agency. Until recently, the taste and quality of sake was considered secondary; what was more important was that it was taxable. Obviously, the rice that sake is made from is under the Agriculture Ministry. They’re closely connected, but under two different [government offices]. I’ve been saying for years that Nihonshu should also be under the Agriculture Ministry, which would make it very easy for us brewers to own our own ricefields, so we can have better control of our products. At the moment, it’s difficult because of the supervisory agencies.”

kampai mance-14Gaunter and Haruo Matsuzaki, chairman of the Sake Export Association, discuss brands with FCCJ staff.  ©Mance Thompson

For Gauntner, the biggest problem is “Image. Looking at it from a consumer’s point of view, a lot of young people think that sake is what old people drink. The image is not sexy, not fashionable. The other thing is that it’s difficult to approach — there are different kinds, and it’s not as easy to comprehend as [other types of alcohol.]

The large crowd that attended the sake-tasting event prior to the screening clearly didn’t find sake unsexy or unfashionable. The kuramoto of Kampai! offered three varieties — Philip Harper’s Yanwari junmaishu (with a monkey basking in a hot spring, our vote for the best label ever), and Kuji’s Dai-Ginjo and the newly award-winning Honjinzo —which FCCJ’s chef paired perfectly with light snacks. As Gauntner and Kuji chatted with partygoers, there wasn’t a dissatisfied drinker in the room.

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            ©2015 Wagamama Media, LLC. All rights reserved.

Media Coverage

GIVE ME THE SUN


GIVE ME THE SUN (Taiyo ga Hoshii)


 May 6, 2016
Q&A guests: Director Zhongyi Ban and narrator Roger Pulvers


For over 20 years, journalist-cum-filmmaker Zhongyi Ban has relentlessly documented the forgotten women who were forced into sexual servitude by the Japanese army during World War II. Returning to his homeland each year from Japan, where’s he been resident since the early 1990s, Ban tracked down over 80 women, recorded their stories, viewed the scars of the atrocities inflicted on them, and even collected money from sympathetic Japanese to cover their medical and other costs.

guang-gmts045Ban is a veteran journalist focusing on Sino-Japan issues.

After several books and prior films on the issue, he has now completed Give Me the Sun, the most comprehensive and compelling portrait of Chinese comfort women yet. Presenting a specially edited version of the film, with English subtitles and narration, at FCCJ, Ban noted, “This film was made with the support of individuals in Japan. Some 730 people contributed to its production, including Roger Pulvers and John Junkerman [both present on the dais]. It took a year and a half to complete, and we’ve been screening the [longer, Japanese version] at least once a week around the country since then — in halls, not yet in theaters — due to the enthusiasm of people to show the film.” He did admit, however, that, “There are a lot of people who disagree with films like this, so it’s quite possible that, down the road, we may receive some backlash from them. So we’re vigilant.”

Pulvers, a noted author, playwright and screenwriter who narrated the film, commented, “My role in this has been very small over these past many years, but it’s been an honor to play even a small part in [Ban’s] immense contribution to history, journalism and the art of film. I think one of the old ladies in the film said something very telling when she remarked that the Chinese government doesn’t want this story to get out either. When you have the collusion — whether it’s a coincidence or not, I don’t know — of the two most powerful countries in Asia, and you have somebody with the courage of [Ban], I am just awed and impressed.”

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Junkerman (left) and Pulvers (right) have worked with Ban on his previous films.

Ban’s mission to locate and document the women began after Japan’s first conference on war reparations in 1992 revealed just how widespread the comfort station practice had been. But as late as 1996, only one Chinese comfort woman had publicly identified herself, due to their fear of what Ban terms “political harassment” and of being charged with “enemy collaboration.”

Give Me the Sun (a reference to the squalid, dark conditions in which the women were held) introduces us to a group of seven aging Chinese women whose bodies and minds were irrevocably scarred by the unspeakable brutality they suffered during World War II, when they were often gang-raped for months until their families could ransom them. Some were lured into sexual slavery by locals working for the Japanese Army, who promised them work in factories or hospitals; others were simply abducted and enslaved in the nearest comfort stations.

Chinese scholars have estimated that close to 100,000 women were forcibly taken from their homes during the war, although lack of official documentation has made it difficult for historians to reach an agreement on the exact figure.  The women in Ban’s film were among the measly one-quarter of such victims who actually survived the war. Give Me the Sun retraces the contentious history of the issue and strengthens the women’s heart-breaking accusations by including interviews with a handful of former Japanese soldiers, from an infantryman to a company commander, as well as Chinese recruiters and Japanese comfort women.

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But Ban admitted that this third film on the issue was prompted mostly by “former Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s declaration, right here at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club [in May 2013], when he essentially denied the existence of comfort women, calling them prostitutes, as well as the bashing of the Asahi newspaper for their reporting on the comfort women issue. This brought the issue to the attention of the Japanese public, but most of the attention was paid to the South Korean comfort women. Far less is known about the Chinese victims of sexual violence, so I wanted to get exposure for those women. I put out a call for support to make the film, and I immediately got it from people of conscience and justice-seekers in Japan.”

South Korean comfort women have been increasingly in the headlines since December 2015, when Japan agreed to set up a fund to indirectly compensate the victims, but only if there is no further mention of the issue. The “diplomatic deceit,” as one critic termed it, has resulted in continued and widespread protests — as well as to Japan’s nonpayment until certain conditions are met.

Chinese comfort women have been largely ignored in the ongoing war reparations dialogue, primarily due, says one scholar, to China’s ongoing “censorship, dictatorship and disregard for human rights,” and the postwar government’s priority to reconcile with Japan at the expense of all else.

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Ban visited one of the shared care-homes for comfort women in South Korea, and was impressed by the level of physical, psychological and financial support they received. “In China, on the other hand, these women are living in deep poverty, without any support whatsoever from the government or from Chinese society. Of course China is not a democracy, so it’s not easy for the public to take action.”

To a question concerning the differing circumstances between the South Korean and Chinese victims, Ban noted that, since Korea had been a Japanese colony, “Korean women were seized or recruited and sent to various parts of Asia where Japanese troops were stationed. They were put into established comfort stations, where they were treated as objects and sexually violated.” Of the 80 women Ban had tracked down in China, including 20 Koreans who had been held captive on the border with Russia, “[typically], Japanese troops stationed out in the provinces would seize women from nearby and put them into rooms where they were kept as sexual slaves. Almost none of them had experience in a comfort station. So we can’t really call them ‘comfort women,’ but rather, they were sexual slaves.”

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Ban with the English poster for his film.

In 1996, lawsuits for reparations were filed in Japan by four of the women in Give Me the Sun, and in 1998, by 10 more, with the aid of Japanese lawyers. All the suits were dismissed or lost in 2000. “Why did I lose the lawsuit? Where is the truth?” wails one of the victims. “Why doesn’t the Japanese government apologize and compensate?” In the film’s closing moments, shortly before she dies, she vows to become a demon, so she can continue her fight for justice.

“Many of them have died, and others are in the last years of their lives,” Ban emphasized. “But it’s not too late to wish that they could receive better treatment during their final years… They’re desperately poor and desperately need assistance for their medical care. But if they were given a big chunk of money, they wouldn’t know what to do with it. That’s not what they’re after. They’re after a sincere, heartfelt apology.”

Ban remains hopeful that there can be “an investigation into the historical reality of the comfort women situation, and research and education on the issue.” His heroic devotion has earned many admirers, as well as detractors. “Ban has told me over the years that he has enemies on both sides,” said Pulvers, “— that the Chinese and the Japanese are against him in many ways. But I firmly believe that the day will come that he will be rewarded by both sides, given honors by both sides, for this most remarkable work.”

Photos by FCCJ except where noted.

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Human-hans/ Ban Zhongyi ©2016


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.

Diving Bell 3320
                                                                                                                                                                                         ©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.

Diving Bell 3322
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.

sewol poster
©2014 Cineport

Media Coverage

TV Exposure

 

THE LOOK OF SILENCE


THE LOOK OF SILENCE


July 1, 2015
Q&A guest: Director Joshua Oppenheimer


TLOS josh hands
Joshua Oppenheimer

Speaking onscreen via the aptly named FaceTime, which leant him a physical presence that was as impressive as his eloquence, director Joshua Oppenheimer described his first meeting with Adi Rukun in 2003. Adi is the indelible hero of The Look of Silence, the exceedingly powerful companion piece to Oppenheimer’s Academy Award©-nominated The Act of Killing, the controversial 2013 juggernaut that swept over 50 major international awards and prompted a hand-wringing reconsideration of the very “rules” of documentary filmmaking.

“There was one victim of the [1960's Indonesian] genocide whose name was almost synonymous with the entire genocide,” Oppenheimer explained, “and that was Ramli. Unlike tens of thousands of others who had been taken away from political prisons, killed at rivers and left to drift out to sea, Ramli’s murder had witnesses… Talking about him became an act of resistance, in a place where people had been traumatized, but threatened into pretending that nothing had happened. Inevitably, I was introduced to Ramli’s family, and his mother wanted me to meet Adi right away. She said ‘he’s exactly like Ramli, his body language, his looks, his way of talking, they’re the same.’”

We first see Adi watching footage of his neighbors bragging about how they dragged Ramli to the Snake River, beat him, sliced him open, ripped off his penis and dumped him into the water to die. The boasts may sound just like those of the preening perpetrators in The Act of Killing, whom Oppenheimer had allowed to re-enact the massacres as if they were making a Hollywood horror movie. But with The Look of Silence, the emphasis shifts from the murderers to the Rukun family, standing in for the families of the million genocide victims.

This is the film that the director first set out to make 10 years ago, when he turned his lens on the taboo subject of the genocide, examining how the survivors and victims’ families continue to live side-by-side with the killers — who remain in control of the country to this day. But early in the 5-year filming process, at the urging of Adi and his family, Oppenheimer began to focus instead on the charismatic, sadistic Anwar Congo, who despite his crimes, remained a powerful, celebrated local leader. How, the family wanted to know, was he able to explain away his guilt, to demand that his grisly conquests were all in the name of ridding the country of communism?

  TLOS josh talks to audiences-3
Oppenheimer spent over 10 years bringing both films to the screen.

Returning to Indonesia in 2011 to complete a follow-up before the release of The Act of Killing made it impossible to safely go back, Oppenheimer discovered that Adi had decided to confront his brother’s killers himself; motivated not by revenge but by the desperate need for closure. The director wasn’t easily convinced. As he told the FCCJ audience: “I realized we would fail to get the apology Adi wanted… In one hour with Adi, these men [would] not be willing to go to that place of guilt and [wouldn’t] admit that what they’ve done is wrong. But I also realized that if I do my job well and capture the shock, the shame, the fear of guilt, the panic, the anger, the threats or whatever comes next, then we can show how torn the society is, how urgently truth, reconciliation and some form of justice are needed, and we can inspire younger Indonesians to fight for that. So maybe we can succeed in a bigger way with the film, even if we fail in the individual confrontations.”

And so The Look of Silence found its voice.

A gentle, serenely composed optometrist, Adi is pure steel in his mission to face the aging leaders of the village death squads, to surmount the impenetrable walls of silence masking their past atrocities. Under the guise of testing their eyesight — a perfect metaphor for the myopia that afflicts his nation — Adi begins his questioning, quietly listens to the perpetrators’ justifications, politely presses them for more answers, and asks them to accept responsibility for their actions.

Amir Siahaan, who oversaw the 3-month-long slaughter of 500 “communists” at Snake River in Medan, tells his interlocutor: “America taught us to hate communists, so we should be rewarded with a trip to America [instead of accusations].” M.Y. Basrun, speaker of the national legislature for the past 40 years, insists: “The mass killings were the spontaneous action of the people. They hated communists.” When Adi persists in his probing, the former head of the Komando Aksi death squads resorts to threats: “Do you want the killings to happen again? Then stop.”

TLOS
Adi Rukun confronts one of the perpetrators in a scene from The Look of Silence.
© Final Cut for Real Aps, Anonymous, Piraya Film AS, and Making Movies Oy 2014

Adi does not flinch, even when one man tells him that all the killers drank the blood of their victims because otherwise they would go insane. “Human blood is salty and sweet,” he explains. In one of the film’s final — and most moving — scenes, the man’s daughter apologizes, visibly shaken by his confession. After a moment, Adi embraces her. But it is the only truly conciliatory note in the film. To be sure, Adi’s bravery stemmed partially from the security measures Oppenheimer’s crew took (“we had two getaway cars, and help from the British and American embassies if we needed to get out of the country quickly”). Adi also accepted that he and his family would necessarily have to move away from Medan once filming had finished. They are now resettled in a much safer community, surrounded by like-minded souls, and Oppenheimer reports that “The children are in much better schools, and the family is relieved to be living a life away from being threatened day to day, which is how they felt for the past 50 years.”

Like The Act of Killing, which brought Oppenheimer in person to FCCJ in early 2014, this new film is absolutely essential viewing. More conventional, and thus more confrontational than the previous work, there is more of what one critic calls “the familiar embattled-interviewee choreography: the demands to stop filming, the shrill addresses to the director ‘Josh’ behind the camera, and the removal of the radio microphone.” Yet it is poignant, compassionate and deeply unsettling.

  TLOS karen talks  to josh1

With The Act of Killing and now the equally unshakeable The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer has shattered the deafening, 50-year silence in Indonesia. The film has won a raft of international awards since earning the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival upon its world premiere. But its greater achievement is that it played across Indonesia on nearly 500 public screens, allowing thousands of Indonesians to share what they could not with the first film, which was never screened. “The first film made it impossible for people to continue not talking about the regime of corruption, fear and thuggery that the perpetrators had built,” Oppenheimer notes. “The second film makes it impossible to continue to ignore the abyss [that] divides people. And that opens the way for activism in the sense that, once people are talking about a problem, they’ll propose solutions for it. You can’t solve a problem that you can’t even talk about.”

Oppenheimer also stressed the importance of viewing the films not as doors to some other culture on the other side of the world, but as mirrors for our own. In pointed comments that we would display in 20-point boldface if it were possible, he cautioned: “If there are two key messages in these films, the first is that every perpetrator in history is a human being like us and we must contemplate ways to understand that we’re all closer to perpetrators than we like to think. The second message, which is particularly relevant to Japan at this moment, considering the proposed changes to the constitution, is that we can never run away from our past. It’s always with us. We are our pasts. It will damage our future if we cannot find the courage to… accept all the things that make us what we are, acknowledge the violence and terror, not make excuses for it, and not generate vicious patriotic rhetoric celebrating or justifying it. We need to take responsibility for what we are, so we can proceed wisely into the future.”

  Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

TLOS POSTER s
© Final Cut for Real Aps, Anonymous, Piraya Film AS, and Making Movies Oy 2014

 


OKINAWA: THE AFTERBURN


June 9, 2015
Q&A guest: Director John Junkerman


okinawa john-p2
Junkerman introduces the film.

At 6:00 pm, an hour earlier than the usual start of FCCJ screening events, writer-director John Junkerman reassured a surprisingly large audience, “I’ve been told that the film doesn’t feel as long as it actually is.” At 9:30 pm, as the hour-long Q&A session was winding down and hands were still going up, the true extent of his accomplishment became clear. Not only was there consensus that the film’s 148-minute length was warranted by the complexity of its subject, but with the exception of one vocal dissenter, praise was effusive for Junkerman’s even-handed illumination of the troubling history of occupation, human and civil rights violations, and dogged resistance in Okinawa — an ongoing flashpoint in US-Japan relations that is drawing even greater attention in this, the 70th anniversary year since the end of World War II.

The club’s screening of Okinawa: The Afterburn was held just days after Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga’s return from a trip to Washington, DC, where the US departments of State and Defense confirmed their “unwavering commitment” to go forward with construction of the huge new Marine base in Henoko, despite convulsive and constant protests from Okinawans for over a decade, and just weeks ago, a crowd of some 35,000 protestors surrounding the Diet in Tokyo.

  okinawa john-4s
Junkerman's history with Okinawa goes back to the mid-1970s.

Junkerman, Academy Award®-nominated director of Hellfire: A Journey from Hiroshima, among a slew of award-winning documentaries like Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times and Japan’s Peace Constitution, opens his landmark new film with Adm. Matthew Perry, who arrives in the Ryukyu Kingdom in the 1850s and immediately sets about trying to claim it. Some 90 years later, his plans finally come to fruition: After the 84-day-long Battle of Okinawa, the bloodiest conflict of the Pacific War, has taken the lives of some 240,000 people, the US begins its occupation of Japan’s southernmost prefecture. The film makes it clear that, despite its reversion to Japan in 1972, the island is still occupied.

With the active support of the Japanese government, America has continued to treat Okinawa as the spoils of war — its “keystone in the Pacific.” Today, the US military occupies nearly 20 percent of the island, accounting for 75 percent of its military presence in Japan. As Junkerman noted during the Q&A, “That’s just 0.6 percent of the entire territory Japan, and that’s an unfair burden, a tremendously large burden. The only way, I think, of explaining that is to understand that Okinawans are [considered] second-class citizens. They don’t have the same status as mainland Japan.”

okinawa yamagami-3Producer-collaborator Yamagami has a 30-year friendship with Junkerman
and has produced 5 films about Okinawa.

Junkerman lived on Okinawa in the mid-1970s, and was struck by “the pervasive and abiding rejection of war among the Okinawa people, and by how incongruous and violent the American military presence on the island was. Over the decades that followed, it troubled me that Okinawa was forced to continue to endure this incompatibility. This is largely a consequence of the ignorance of the American public, and I felt a responsibility to make a film that would penetrate, if only in a small way, this shroud of apathy.”

Junkerman and his close collaborator, Tetsujiro Yamagami, the founding president of social-issues film company Siglo and the producer of five previous films about Okinawa, attempt to pierce the shroud through interviews with American, Japanese and Okinawan survivors of the Battle of Okinawa, tracing its fraught legacy. The director makes crucial use of footage shot by the US during the course of the war; but his trademark approach is to allow eyewitnesses to relate history as they lived it, and Okinawa: The Afterburn features several revelatory accounts. Issues of wartime guilt are movingly recalled by such survivors as Hajime Kondo, who admits that the Japanese sense of superiority over the Ryukyuan people accounted for some of the war’s worst atrocities: “We committed many abuses here in Okinawa,” he laments. Others recall the Chibichiri-gama mass suicide-murders, the 140 comfort stations staffed with “pigua” (comfort women), and the students who were forced by Japanese troops to throw bombs underneath US tanks.

Although there have been frequent problems with the US presence over the years, from dangerous helicopter crashes to water supplies poisoned by jet fuel, opposition to US bases expanded most dramatically after the 1995 rape of a 12-year old girl by three American servicemen. One of them is interviewed to devastating effect in the film, and his chilling testimony is just one of the many reasons that Okinawa: The Afterburn is a must-see work. “To interview the perpetrator was something that we debated long and hard,” said Junkerman, “but we felt the need to convey to our audience the true nature of that rape, and to do so, we needed to hear both sides.”

Junkerman is aware that there is a sense of fatigue in Japan, where Okinawa is the subject of fairly constant TV documentaries, and said that he and Yamagami knew they must “do something that those films don’t do — break through the barrier of people who think they’ve seen enough of Okinawa and know the subject. There is a lot that isn’t expressed. We didn’t concentrate on recent developments… we felt that the historical context was neglected, and once one has a better grasp of the historical roots, then one understands why the problems exist. And we also understand why they’re so tenacious and difficult to solve.”

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Junkerman hopes to screen the film across America.

Yamagami was queried about his selection of an American director to revisit an essentially Japanese history. “I don’t really think of John as being a foreigner,” he admitted. “We’ve known each other for over 30 years and worked together on several films. For me, the key to a successful collaboration is to have a relationship of trust.”

In a “response to the film” printed in the press notes, historian John Dower notes: “No place in the world surpasses Okinawa as a symbol of the bitter legacies of war since World War II. And no voices are more eloquent in calling for peace and equality than the voices of the people of Okinawa…despite the oppression and discrimination we encounter [in the film], the voices we hear are so dignified and articulate that one emerges not just with understanding and admiration, but also with hope.”

Indeed, Junkerman reminded the FCCJ audience that the report commissioned by Okinawa Gov. Onaga to review “the process of decision-making that went into moving ahead with the Henoko base,” is due next month, and “there are a lot of political questions concerning the previous governor’s approval, after he had been voted out of office, but before his successor took over, of four permits that were crucial to building the base at Henoko. That seems to me to be a violation of democratic process and democratic rights. As a lot more people are becoming aware of that, it’s becoming less possible for people in Japan to look the other way.”

  Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

okinawa-poster
©2015 SIGLO

Media Coverage


PIETA IN THE TOILET


May 27, 2015
Q&A guests: Director Daishi Matsunaga, stars Yojiro Noda and Hana Sugisaki


three on stage
The talented trio faces the press.

For a film programmer, there is nothing quite so satisfying as being able to contribute, however insignificantly, to the launch of an independent film that deserves to be seen and celebrated far more widely than its modest budget may allow. Such was the case with FCCJ’s screening of Pietà in the Toilet, the feature-fiction debut of award-winning documentary director Daishi Matsunaga (Pyuupiru, Gospel).

Inspired by the final story idea of Japan’s great God of Comics, Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion), who jotted the outlines of Pietà down on his last diary page before dying of stomach cancer in 1989, Matsunaga has created a big-screen treatment that is by turns distressing, blackly humorous and uplifting — a poignant consideration of life under the looming hand of death. Nearly as impressively, he has directed a handful of major movie stars (Lily Franky, Rie Miyazawa, Shinobu Otake) with the assurance of a seasoned pro, and guided two unknowns in the lead roles who achieve an onscreen chemistry that is a real rarity.

  hana smiles  noda speaks  daishi speaks
Hana Sugisaki, Yojiro Noda and Daishi Matsunaga discuss the close collaboration that went into making the movie.

Making his acting debut, real-life rock star Yojiro Noda (Radwimps) is perfectly cast as a lost young man who is rescued from his ennui and emptiness by Hana Sugisaki, a teen actress whose slim TV and film credits could not possibly predict the sheer bravado of her revelatory performance in Pietà. Just 16 years old during filming, Sugisaki delivers a truly star-making turn.

In Matsunaga’s adaptation of Tezuka’s story fragment, Noda plays young cancer patient Hiroshi Sonoda, who receives a fatal cancer diagnosis and decides to die without a fight. Once a promising art student, he’d quit painting after an unhappy love affair, and he’s been washing windows ever since. But after fainting on the job, he finds himself in the hospital, where he meets two people who will shake him out of his stupor: Toru Yokota (Franky), a long-term cancer patient who gets his kicks from photographing nurses and nubile visitors; and Mai (Sugisaki), a schoolgirl with serious attitude and a death wish. Hiroshi, weakened by chemotherapy and growing superstitious in the way of many victims of hopeless situations, begins to think he can survive if only he makes someone happy — and Mai, precocious, tortured and desperately lonely, is his willing target. As a chaste love affair blooms, Hiroshi is inspired to pick up his brush. With Yokota’s help, he begins painting the pietà on the walls of his toilet, a final act of defiance and redemption.

daishiMatsunaga's facility with actors might be a result of his own experiences:
he began his film career as one of the Waterboys.

When queried about how he managed to snag such a big-name cast, as well as how he found his leads, Matsunaga explained that he and his producers (Shinji Ogawa of BridgeHead and Morio Amagi of CineBazar) had wanted someone who was a creative artist for the character of Hiroshi. Eventually, they decided to reach out to singers, and Matsunaga felt an instant rapport with Noda. “As I listened to his lyrics and songs… I found him to be very sexy and intriguing, and his songs expressed something similar to the worldview that I hoped to capture.” Conveniently, Noda also wrote and performed the theme song for the film.

hana speakHana, a rising star, skipped her school trip to be at the FCCJ screening.

As for the “equally important” role of Mai, Matsunaga “held auditions for a full year, and from the beginning, Hana Sugisaki was very impressive. I narrowed it down to 5 -10 actresses, and asked Yojiro to come in and read against them. When I saw how he and Hana played off each other, and changed each other, I was convinced to cast her.”

Sugisaki surprised the FCCJ audience by being as demure and soft-spoken during the Q&A session as her character is bold and outspoken in the film. She discussed the audition and rehearsal processes, the difficulty of “capturing Mai,” and the frustrating process of building confidence. “I think I was able to do this because I trusted [the director and my costar],” she said. After a particularly lengthy series of takes one day, “Matsunaga-san came to me and said ‘You finally captured Mai,’ and from then on, I was able to interact with Yojiro as if he was Hiroshi and I was Mai. The character stayed inside me for a full month after filming was done.”

noda laughsYojiro rocks the audience with his superb English,

Noda also surprised the FCCJ audience — and the sizable contingent of Japanese press, most of whom were there because of the Radwimps singer-songwriter’s enormous popularity — by speaking in fluent American English: “Thank you for inviting us here tonight, we’re very pleased to be here. It’s been 10 years since Daishi Matsunaga [heard] this story, and it’s been a long way here. This was my very first acting experience, and it was awesome to work with these incredible talents. I was very honored. I hope you enjoyed the film, and if you did, please help spread the Pietà world to other audiences. Thank you.” (Noda lived in the US for 4 years as a youth, and says he maintains his English through producing work with non-Japanese singers and touring abroad with his band.)

three laugh 
The photo call turns a bit giggly.

Fans of Osamu Tezuka, many of whom have waited 25 years to see his final story come to life, and fans of exceptional new acting and filmmaking talent: Pietà in the Toilet is for you. You’ll be seeing a lot more of Daishi Matsunaga, Yojiro Noda and Hana Sugisaki in the future; this is where it all began.

  Photos by FCCJ.

Pieta POSTER
©2015 “Pieta in the Toilet” Film Partners

Media Coverage

TV Exposure

日本テレビ [ZIP! SHOWBIZ TODAY] 「RADWIMPS野田洋次郎、英語で会見」

KANZEON


KANZEON


April 22, 2015
Q&A guests: KanZeOn codirector Neil Cantwell, Musicity founder Nick Luscombe
and monk/DJ Akinobu Tatsumi


kanzeon-2
Ta2mi demonstrates his beat-boxing technique before the Q&A.

Kicking off our Q&A session following the screening of KanZeOn, Buddhist monk Akinobu Tatsumi (a/k/a Ta2mi) entered the room in full ceremonial garb and slowly approached the front, microphone pressed close to his mouth. The loudspeaker erupted with an extraordinarily percussive beat-boxing routine and the audience burst into delighted applause.

It was a visual-aural juxtaposition that could sum up Japan’s famed incongruities in a nutshell.

Some of these are evident in the gorgeously photographed film, which one audience member termed “exquisite and profound.” Enveloping viewers in the sights and sounds of a mostly ancient Japan, moving evocatively from forest to temple to mountaintop, celebrating the deep resonance of sound within the nation’s cultural identity — its songs, stories, rituals, performances, faiths and traditions — the documentary explores the mysterious bonds between the traditional and modern, between the spiritual and sensory.

kanzeon-1 
Luscombe and Cantwell talk about the special qualities
of sound as expressed in haiku poems.

Tatsumi, a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist monk from the countryside near Kumamoto, is one of the three musicians around whom KanZeOn is built, allowing them to guide the way through their words and performances. Shō player Eri Fujii and Akihiro Iitomi, an expert in the kotsuzumi drum and a Noh theater master are the film’s other guides.

Directed by Neil Cantwell and Tim Grabham, both British, the film's belated first screenings were held in Kagoshima and Kumamoto last week. While living in Fukuoka for two years as an exchange student, as Cantwell explained during the Q&A session, “I developed an interest in Japanese religion and prepared to do the Shikoku 88-temple pilgrimage… But I’m a musician, and actually, the most progress I made with Japanese language and understanding Japanese culture came from playing with people. You can communicate through music when you don’t speak much of the language.” Cantwell gigged with Tatsumi, performed on the same concert bill with Fujii, and studied for six months with Iitomi.

Back in the UK and talking with Grabham about making a film together in Japan, the three musicians became obvious choices. “Religion was playing an important part in their lives, but in a different way for each of them,” said Cantwell. “And that’s where the film came from.” It took five years to complete, since it was entirely self-funded. But it has been screened continuously around the world since its premiere in 2011.

KanZeOn enlightens without explaining, and mesmerizes without demanding full understanding. Still, it was not surprising that one member of the audience questioned the lack of narration. Said Cantwell, “Ultimately, our decision not to include narration came from a worry I had about appropriating Japanese culture and doing something that would be disrespectful. That informed the decision to, as much as possible, just present these performances and the thoughts and feelings of these people that we were making the film with. It was very much a collaborative experience.”

kanzeon-4Tatsumi selected at type of shishiodoshi (scare the deer) as his favorite sound:
when water, in a bamboo rocker arm, hits the rock below in Japanese gardens.

Tatsumi noted that the collaboration had been “very exciting for me. I’m happy that so many people could be united by the film, and that I could meet so many new people through the process.” He also thanked his mother, who used to work at Yamaha and made sure he got an electric keyboard as a boy, and his father for allowing him to continue a music career in tandem with his religious work.

Joining Cantwell and Tatsumi for the Q&A was Nick Luscombe, who is launching a project with Cantwell to create a crowd-sourced “self-portrait” of Japan. A radio broadcaster for BBC Radio 3 as well as a musician, Luscombe is the founder of Musicity, a web app (soon to be an iPhone or Android app) that allows travelers to go to specific locations around the world, and listen to music there that was created by commissioned artists in response to an aspect of the location that inspires them.

Building on that idea, Luscombe and Cantwell are now compiling a prototype version of a sound map for the Japan Sound Portrait, using scenes from KanZeOn and a first round of public submissions. They’re encouraging people from all over the country to contribute 17-second audio/video clips (reflecting the 17 syllables of haiku, which often rely on sounds for their impact) celebrating the sounds they cherish. They envision going beyond just creating a sound map, and foresee a film version as well as an immersive virtual reality environment in which certain locations will be explorable online via 360-degree, 3-D footage (technology coming this year from Oculus Rift and Sony Morpheus).

“The idea is to get as many people as possible to contribute to this project,” Luscombe told the audience. It’s very simple to do, just email the tracks [see how below] and we’ll get them online. It’s a long-term project, and we’re hoping that it develops over the next five years. We’re asking people to record whatever sounds they can — anything that’s interesting.”

Just in the past week, the two have received a slew of submissions, some of which may not necessarily qualify as “interesting.” “Someone sent in the sound of their car’s engine,” laughed Cantwell, “and it’s a German car.”

kanzeon-3Luscombe, Tatsumi, Cantwell and Emiko Odera, who was the translator for the film crew.

Luscombe continued: “There are so many sounds that are endangered because of the way that technology moves so quickly here. For example, the sound that you push to cross the road, that’s going to change sometime soon.” He agreed with a suggestion from the audience, that the posts be time-tagged as well as place-tagged online, to demonstrate the evolution of sounds in the same location, even over just five years.

Added Cantwell: “We really want to make a sonic world. You can combine elements of a documentary film with elements of computer games, and we can begin to manipulate these environments that we capture in a way that would say more, perhaps, about the character of sound and why people in Japan seem to care more about the texture of sound that in other parts of the world.”

Asked why they didn’t plan to create a global sound portrait, Luscombe laughed and said they might. But: “There’s just so much more going on here, sonically. People comment on it quite a lot. It’s a really rich resource of sound. It’s a great place to start.”

For more on the Japan Sound Portrait: http://japansoundportrait.tumblr.com/
To submit clips: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

  Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

kanzeon-s
©cinema iloobia/Dissolving Path

Media Coverage

WALKING WITH MY MOTHER (Houyou)


WALKING WITH MY MOTHER


April 14, 2015
Q&A guests: Director Katsumi Sakaguchi and producer Atsuko Ochiai


DSC 0007
Ochiai has produced all six films by Sakaguchi,
beginning with the award-winning Blue Tower in 2000.

During the exceptionally long and insightful Q&A session following the screening of Walking with My Mother, a Japanese journalist in the second row repeatedly dried her eyes and quietly blew her nose, seemingly unable to stem her grief over a private loss. Or perhaps it was regret. Both emotions — and many others, from frustration to despair to hope — are evoked in abundance by Katsumi Sakaguchi’s documentary, which focuses on his mother’s late-life journey over a four-year period.

As the film opens, 78-year-old Suchie Sakaguchi is distraught and distracted, over-reliant on tranquilizers and undergoing a personality shift because of them. She has not recovered from her daughter’s death to illness three years earlier, and now her husband has been hospitalized, with diminishing chances of survival. Suchie’s devoted son arrives to help out, and begins recording her life so as to better comprehend her suffering. Soon, the camera becomes Katsumi’s way of coping, as well as of distancing himself, as his father’s health deteriorates and he eventually dies. Suchie’s mental state declines further, and only when she walks — no matter what the hour — does she become less agitated.

But then, miraculously, her sister Mariko arrives and a rescue effort begins. Suchie goes back with her to their hometown on the southern island of Tanegashima, which has changed much in the 38 years since her last visit. Her anguish has been her constant companion for so long, it seems at first that the change of scenery, and the ministrations of family and friends, won’t shake her free of it. But Mariko stays devoted to her sister’s recovery, and gradually begins to break through Suchie’s grief. Working in the garden and reducing her tranquilizer intake — as well as taking daily walks — eventually begin to restore both her health and her sanity.


DSC 0045 
Sakaguchi responds to a question about the "not-shy" intimacy of certain scenes.

The director was asked what prompted him to begin shooting. “I saw the reflection of my mother in my camera lens, and she looked so fragile, sitting by the window,” Sakaguchi recalled. “I had mixed feelings, because I loved her, but [having to take care of her] was stripping away my freedom. The situation left me so frustrated, that I felt I might actually strike her. That’s where the camera came in handy. The distance of having to focus saved me.”

Walking with My Mother doesn’t shy away from presenting the most private, borderline queasy, moments, but the director felt it was necessary to provide an utterly unflinching depiction of his mother’s breakthrough, although he didn’t realize there would be a happy ending when he first began filming her. His intimate portrait is more than just a home movie; it has provided us with a universal example of the types of social challenges now pressing on Japan’s future, particularly in terms of its aging society and the provision of health services.

To a question regarding the adequacy of those services in the case of his mother’s care, Sakagami noted, “[My parents’ generation was the first wave] and the second wave will hit in 2025, when the baby boomers will be in their 70s. I think it’s going to hit Japan like a huge tsunami. Luckily, my mother was insured under the National Health system, so she was able to receive relatively good services. But I’m concerned about all those who won’t be able to receive such services in the future.”
 
He also expressed his concern over the fact that so many of the elderly are not able to go back to their hometowns, as his mother was, and are dying in Tokyo, often alone. To that end, Sakaguchi provided a Director’s Statement to the audience, which included a list of 10 steps that could vastly improve the lives of loved ones.

DSC00300Ochiai and Sakaguchi with the poster for the film.

For those of us with aging parents, and those of us who are aging parents, it’s a list that bears passing on:

1.    Find a trustworthy friend
2.    Invite others into your home
3.    Keep a daily diary
4.    Cook a meal a day
5.    Find a pet or grow a plant
6.    Join a circle and interact with others
7.    Return to your hometown, at least once
8.    Never forget humor
9.    Have a favorite song for yourself
10.   Live life for the ones you love

“If I were to give one piece of advice to caregivers,” Sakaguchi concluded, “do what you’re good at. I’m a director, so I used my camera. But if you’re a cook, cook for your parent. If you’re a tailor, sew something for them. And do it with abandon. Throw yourself into it.”

One of the most talked-about films at the 2014 Tokyo International Film Festival, where it was an official selection in the Japanese Cinema Splash section and the only documentary being screened, Walking with My Mother has just been announced as the Opening film in the Competition section of the Nippon Connection film festival in Frankfurt, Germany, to be held in mid-June.

The other piece of good news is that Walking with My Mother will be shown with English subtitles at all screenings during its run from April 25 at Image Forum in Shibuya. Spread the word!

  Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

wwmm
©Supersaurus

Media Coverage

 


JOURNEY WITHOUT END


March 5, 2015
Q&A guest: Director Masako Sakata


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Masako Sakata

Following the death of her husband, photographer and longtime FCCJ member Greg Davis, from the affects of Agent Orange, Masako Sakata began crafting her first documentary, Agent Orange: A Personal Requiem (2007). It would win the Mainichi documentary film award, the Paris International Environmental Film Festival special prize, and the Earth Vision special jury award, among others, and be followed by Living the Silent Spring (2011), which depicted the struggles and courage of American and Vietnamese children who bear the imprint of Agent Orange and other dangerous chemical agents.

Marking her third appearance at FCCJ with her third documentary film, Journey Without End, Sakata once again impressed the audience with her commitment to exploring controversial subjects with a soft-spoken steeliness, both on screen and in person. After candidly taking aim during the Q&A session at a variety of deserving targets, including the media (“I think the media is promoting the government’s side more and more”), the nuclear power industry (“One of the things that nuclear policy implies is that it is a state secret”) and the LDP (“Not all Japanese are docile subjects, only 25% support them”), she was asked whether the State Secrets Law might have been one reason she shied away from focusing entirely on Fukushima in Journey Without End. “No,” she responded immediately. “I’m not afraid of things like that.”

SMKS

Sakata’s films are remarkable for the lack of stridency in their narrations, which are gently voiced in Japanese and English by the filmmaker herself, despite their powerful condemnations of untenable situations. This is perhaps a trait she inherited from her mother, whose antinuclear activism in the 1970s led to a compilation of newsletters that were politely entitled Please Listen. It was to these newsletters that Sakata found herself drawn following the 3/11 disasters, when fear and anxiety engulfed Japan amid conflicting news reports concerning the status of the Fukushima nuclear plant, the actual radiation levels, the “safe” zones and the number of evacuees. She knew that she wanted to delve into the subject of nuclear power, but “if there are 160,000 evacuees, there are 160,000 tragedies. How could I capture it all in one film?”

 

Sakata was eventually prompted to set off on a quest to find some of the same answers her mother sought: Why was nuclear energy still sold as a “peaceful” use of atoms, when it is essentially the same as nuclear weapons? Why have the misguided nuclear policies of so many governments persisted, especially after Chernobyl and Fukushima? As she puts it in Journey Without End, “We claim to have harnessed the power of the atom, but perhaps it is humankind that is under its control.”

Beginning with a visit to her sister on Guernsey, Channel Isles — where a spent fuel reprocessing plant in nearby Cap de la Hague, France, has been leaking into the sea, with radioactive waste detected as far away as Denmark and Norway — Sakata journeys to Bikini Atoll, the Marshall Islands, Kazakhstan and sites around Japan, where she finds the “scars” of the nuclear age still deeply engraved in both the landscapes and the displaced populations. She speaks to victims as well as experts, all of whom have eye-opening stories to share. And she shares chilling news footage from the last 70 years, including US Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s epochal Atoms for Peace speech.

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Sakata with the poster for her film.

Not surprisingly, Sakata’s Journey Without End reveals what she termed during the Q&A as “the folly of the government, bureaucracy and industry, which are responsible for what happened in Fukushima, [as well as] the importance of citizen’s power and persistence to speak out for a just cause.” Although she does not devote a great deal of screen time to the aftereffects of Fukushima, she hopes that Japanese audiences will “read between the lines” to understand how similar the scars of Fukushima are to those of Chernobyl and elsewhere.

Sakata particularly hopes that the media will quit transmitting the government’s mixed-up messages about nuclear safety: “There’s a game of playing down [the dangers]: ‘Keep smiling and you won’t be affected by radioactivity as much.’” The audience nodded and chuckled appreciatively, but not because we think it’s funny; far, far from it.

  Photos by FCCJ.

Journeys End poster
©2014 Masako Sakata

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El viaje sin fin de Sakata Masako

NU GUO: IN THE NAME OF THE MOTHER


NU GUO: IN THE NAME OF THE MOTHER


February 4, 2015
Q&A guest: Codirector Pio d’Emilia


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d'Emilia introduces his film.

Pio d’Emilia, FCCJ stalwart and longtime correspondent for Italy’s Sky TG24, set the stage perfectly for the special screening of his film. Recalling that it all began when he was home on a visit in 2011, he told the audience: “The big news story at the time was how many women were being killed each year by men who pretend to love them,” he said. “In that year, close to 150 women were killed because they didn’t do what they were expected to.”

As part of a report related to the abhorrent situation, d’Emilia journeyed to the province of Yunnan, China, in the breathtakingly beautiful foothills of the Himalayas. There, he reported, one could find a centuries-old matriarchal, matrilineal society that is egalitarian and non-violent, the Mosuo. Recognized in 1995 by the United Nations as a “model society” and “precious source of inspiration,” the Mosuo live a peaceful existence with no domestic abuse, rape or femicide.

PIO1  PIO2
d'Emilia answers questions.

Shortly after his report had aired, d’Emilia was contacted by educator Francesca Rosati Freeman, a women’s rights advocate and antiracism activist who had written Benvenuti nel paese delle donne (Welcome to the Realm of Women), a 2010 book that focused on the transformations occurring among the Mosuo as a result of globalization. She had been organizing visits of small groups to experience an alternative way of life in Mosuo communities, demonstrating that it was nevertheless possible to imagine a different life in Italy, one in which women are valued and men are not oppressed.

Rosati Freeman and d’Emilia decided to collaborate on a film, and returned together to Yunnan, where they stayed and filmed among one Mosuo community on Lugu Lake. The resulting documentary, Nu Guo: In the Name of the Mother, has just begun its international film festival journey; but it is already being used as an educational tool in Italian schools.

The 50,000-strong Mosuo community survives, the film tells us, on “modesty, discipline, altruism and respect.” There is equality between the sexes, although women are in charge, and one of the defining features is the zou hun union: Relationships can be long-running, and children may result, but there is no marriage contract and men do not live with any woman except their mothers. Fathers are responsible not for their own children, but for their sisters’ children.

Piowithposter
Pio d'Emilia.

During a lengthy Q&A session following the film’s screening, d’Emilia endorsed the system in principal, stressing that it negates the need for jealousy and proves what women already seem to know, that they are “stronger, more just and more fair than men.” But when asked whether he thought any part of it could be applied to a Western society, he admitted that it would be difficult. “The embryo of violence," he stressed, "lies within the Judeo-Christian patriarchal system.”

Although the Chinese government does not recognize the Mosuo as an ethnic minority — a blessing in disguise, since it would impose the one-child rule and effectively destroy the Mosuo's unique attributes — it has recognized the community’s appeal as a tourist destination.  A decade ago, the government opened up the interior, building an airport and motorway in the Mosuo’s once-secluded land. This has brought a tourist invasion, enriching the community but also laying siege to its essential identity.

d’Emilia described certain unsavory aspects of this invasion that don’t appear in Nu Guo, including karaoke establishments that are actually brothels, staffed by Han Chinese who pretend to be Mosuo, to better lure visitors attracted by the overbilled “free love” concept.

Wouldn’t the Chinese want to be in total control of such a bustling tourist trade, asked one audience member. “We tried many times to get a statement from the Chinese government,” d’Emilia said, “but, you know, they’re not worried about a loving, nonviolent minority that’s not trying to overthrow communism.”

Despite the external pressures and other inevitable forces of modernization, d’Emilia is optimistic about the area's future: “The Mosuo are so proud, so convinced of being right, that they believe they can survive forever,” he said. Asked whether he feels the same, d’Emilia nodded vigorously. “The best way to protect a society is to open up, not to close,” he said. And in inimitable style, he emphasized that there’s a lesson in there for Japan.

  Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

nu guo-1
2014©Dharma Productions (Tokyo)

Media Coverage

 


NUCLEAR NATION II


 OCTOBER 14, 2014
Q&A guests: Futaba Mayor Shiro Izawa and documentary director Atsushi Funahashi


NNII-1  NNII-2
Mayor Izawa                                                                   Funahashi

The nuclear disaster arising out of 3/11 has inspired hundreds of documentaries, but the first to receive international acclaim was Atsushi Funahashi’s 2012 Nuclear Nation, about the exile of 1,415 residents from the area housing the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant. Premiering at the Berlin Film Festival less than a year after the meltdowns, it provided an extremely intimate look at an unconscionable situation, following the fates of evacuees from Futaba Machi, who had been forced to move 250 km away to an abandoned high school in Saitama.

Highlighting the inhumane conditions, the ongoing agonies, the unanswered questions about the true costs of nuclear energy and capitalism — and introducing us to feisty Futaba Mayor Katsutaka Idogawa, a cheerleader for nuclear power who was now regretting his support — the film quietly earned our moral outrage, as the government and TEPCO continued to ignore demands for empathy and the information vacuum gradually sucked all hope from the survivors.

Nuclear Nation ended in December 2011 with over 600 residents still at the school, but Funahashi never stopped shooting. After cutting down over 400 hours of footage, he has now created the second chapter in the refugees’ grim ordeal.

Izawafunahashi
Funahashi has pledged to continue following the fate of Futaba indefinitely.

Nuclear Nation II begins at New Year’s 2012, and brings us forward to this past March, when the school is once again abandoned. In this chapter, there are no more bands coming to cheer up the evacuees, no more truckloads of fresh produce, no more visits from the emperor and empress, no more “Gambare Futaba Machi!!” banners. But there are still the annual observances of prayer marking 3/11, the brief visits to crumbling homes in the exclusion zone (96% of the town is deemed uninhabitable), men shuffling into meetings they don’t want to attend, officials dodging questions.

There is also increasing desperation, bickering over differing levels of resident compensation, and a new mayor: After Idogawa’s vocal complaints and refusal to attend one-way meetings have earned him infamy, the town council summarily ejects him in early 2013. His replacement, Mayor Shiro Izawa, is less outspoken, but equally opposed to the co-opting of Futaba as a dumping ground for irradiated soil and other nuclear debris. We see the reactions of townspeople when Environment Minister Nobuteru Ishihara makes his notorious remark that, “At the end of the day, it all boils down to kaneme (the amount of money they can get in compensation for their land).”

Although it is not included in the film, it was widely reported in September that Izawa and Fukushima Gov. Yuhei Sato had met with Prime Minister Abe to accept the government’s proposal.

Fortunately, the mayor was on hand after FCCJ’s sneak preview of Nuclear Nation II to set the record straight:  “While it’s true that the governor did make the decision to accept plans to build temporary storage for nuclear waste,” Izawa said, choosing his words carefully, “the town of Futaba is still discussing the issue. So contrary to what the Japanese media has reported, we have not totally accepted the construction of these sites.”

Funahashi immediately added: “What’s being forgotten is the landowners’ [rights] to decide whether to sell or lease their land. The central and prefectural governments are going over their heads and accepting the facilities…and creating a context in which people are being forced to sell their land, even if it’s against their will.”

Three and a half years after the triple disaster, close to 100,000 people still live in temporary facilities in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures due to construction delays on permanent housing.  To a question about matching them up with suitable housing from the 8 million vacant residences throughout Japan, Izawa said, “For these people, everyday life is linked to a sense of community. They have their family, friends and relatives; they share an environment, share a history, and that’s what makes a town…I think it’s important to give them back the community they had, and not just let it collapse.” Funahashi added, “I see it as a kind of human rights violation to force people to live in temporary housing.” Earlier, he had mentioned, “The role of my film is to show they have lost something kaneme can never compensate.”

While Izawa labors to make the voices of Futaba’s refugees heard above the din of nuclear dialogue, former Mayor Idogawa is now running for governor of Fukushima. The gubernatorial election is October 26, so we’ll know within weeks whether he’s been given a second chance to do right by his constituents. Meanwhile, Atsushi Funahashi continues to document this ongoing tragedy, and we should expect Nuclear Nation III to include Futaba’s reactions to the controversial rebooting of Japan’s nuclear program.

 Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

 NNII poster
©2014 Documentary Japan

 

Media Coverage

 


HARMONICS MINYOUNG


 OCTOBER 8, 2014
Q&A guest: Writer-director Writer-director Shoichiro Sasaki


minyoung1
Sasaki (r.) with his producers, Tetsujiro Yamagami and Takahide Harada.

For 20 years, legendary NHK director Shoichiro Sasaki was entirely absent from the public stage, apparently retired from a career that marked him as one of Japan’s most prolific and poetic creators, with a body of internationally award-winning work that inspired such leading lights as Cannes favorites Hirokazu Kore-eda and Naomi Kawase, and Venice regular Shinya Tsukamoto.

Sasaki has now broken his silence, and fans will be thrilled that his first-ever theatrical release (the film is debuting on October 11 at the vaunted arthouse theater Iwanami Hall) is over 2 hours long. Harmonics Minyoung is an inventive, experimental quasi-documentary that moves constantly between Japanese, Korean and English as well as the language of song. The complexity of its structure obfuscates its strong antiwar message until the final act, but it gradually becomes clear that the story is near to the director’s heart. As it turns out, the film’s period scenes, depicting a family’s life in Tokyo during World War II, are based on Sasaki's actual experiences as a youth in wartime.

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The director waxes eloquent on Mozart.

During his Q&A session at FCCJ, Sasaki expressed fears about the film’s public reception, reminding everyone that for two decades, he’s been known only as a “former TV director.” He recalled the recent cast and crew screening, at which he stood on the stage and apologized for putting them all through so much trouble. “I’d been thinking about what a ‘film director’ is,” he explained. “Is he a great artist? No. A craftsman? Maybe. A shyster? I finally realized that he’s a guy who causes problems for everyone involved, in order to complete his film.”

As in Sasaki’s previous productions, Harmonics Minyoung is cast with nonprofessionals. The ebullient heroine, Minyoung, is from Seoul, but met Sasaki in 2004 when she was attending Waseda. The director asked her parents for their permission before signing their daughter on to play the character of university student Minyoung, who is writing and illustrating a novel called “The Laws of Harmonics.” She is obsessed with Mozart’s music (as is Sasaki) and, for some reason, with a photograph depicting her grandmother's Japanese friend Sueko. Driven by her curiosity about Sueko, Minyoung journeys to Tokyo. Here, she meets a street child, Yu, as well as reuniting with a friend who is now a freelance journalist covering the dark side of society, and is constantly being pursued by strange men in trenchcoats. When Minyoung suddenly becomes Sueko in the film-within-a-film, she is actually portraying Sasaki’s own mother, to whom Harmonics Minyoung is dedicated. The journalist is his father — in reality, as here, murdered for expressing critical views of the military — and the street child, Sasaki himself.

Sasaki originally planned to use only Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony (No. 41) in the film, since it’s “overflowing with hope,” and chose the Czech Philharmonic because they have “the best string section in the world.” But after production ended, he felt something was missing, and decided to delay editing until he finally had a breakthrough: “One day, I heard the old [Civil War] song ‘Marching Through Georgia’ — which was the first American song heard by the Japanese, when Admiral Perry came to Japan — and I [realized I needed a musical counterpoint]. After that, I selected 12 songs to use in the film, even though I didn’t tell producer [Takahide] Harada.”

Sasaki is now 78, and eager to plan his next outing as film director. Considering his enviable energy and the widespread support from a creative community that never forgot him, his second career may be just as laudable as his first.

 — Photos by Koichi Mori.

minyoung

©2014 Siglo/Sasaki Films

 

Media Coverage

 


 THE END OF THE SPECIAL TIME WE WERE ALLOWED


 July 24, 2014
Q&A guest: Director Shingo Ota


Shingo Ota
Shingo Ota

July’s second screening about youth in imperiled situations, The End of the Special Time We Were Allowed is perhaps the first-ever film made by a young director about a friend’s suicide, completed as he continued to grapple with his own imagined role in it.

But the story hadn’t begun that way.

Shingo Ota was a high school friend of Sota Masuda, a talented young singer-songwriter who dropped out when he won a major competition and headed off to Tokyo to become famous. When his major-label debut falls through, Masuda gradually turns to drugs to blunt the pain of his loneliness and despair. After a brush with death by overdose, he returns, defeated, to his Nagano hometown. There, his friends rally round him, and some of his youthful confidence and energy returns. Ota —who had studied film at Waseda — is recruited to make the documentary about Masuda’s comeback.

MI SO KS
Ota and interpreter Mihoko Imai listen to the reminder
of the film's theatrical opening in Tokyo.

Unfortunately, Masuda’s optimism dims and he kills himself in the midst of the project, leaving a note for Ota: “Be sure to finish the film,” it says. “And try to give it a happy ending.”

Ota was devastated and angry, a feeling that he translates into fictional bookending scenes which drew some criticism from FCCJ’s audience for their violence.  But Masuda’s note definitely proved helpful: “I was determined to finish the film,” Ota said during the Q&A, “so I think I would’ve finished it whether Sota left the note or not. But it helped his family understand what he wanted, and they agreed that I should continue.”

SO at bar
Ota and producer Yutaka Tsuchiya (in hat) join audience members
in the Main Bar after the screening.

As for the fictional violence, Ota explained that he wanted to draw a stark comparison between the type of suicide that occurs when someone is suddenly overwhelmed by hopelessness, and Masuda’s choice of death, “which was planned, carefully and deliberately. I wanted to use [the bullying scene of a suicide victim] to find a way of portraying this difference. The [female character] who killed herself did so without thinking. This type of suicide we can prevent. We need to give them the opportunity to rethink their choices." 

With so many Japanese youth making the same choice, The End of the Special Time We Were Allowed opens a much-needed crack into their world. More than just a record of a life cut tragically short, is a tremendously personal, poignant and finally, revelatory inquiry into the increasingly low expectations of today’s youth.

— Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

watayuru
©Midnight Call Productions

 

Media Coverage

 

A CLASS OF THEIR OWN


 A CLASS OF THEIR OWN


 July 15, 2014
Q&A guest: Director Haryun Kim


Haryun 3
Haryun Kim

Growing up in Seoul, Haryun Kim always felt a kinship with outsiders, and after working for an NGO post-college, completed her first film, Voice of Migrant Workers (2002). It wasn’t until she’d moved to London to study Social Anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies that she understood: she herself was a “person on the move,” in a world that is increasingly filled with “migrants.” The plight of the growing underclass became her subject. “I want to tell sincere human stories,” she says, “that champion the voices of those who would otherwise never be heard.”

After studying documentary at the National Film and TV School, Kim relocated with her family to Guanzhou, China in 2008 and was immediately struck by the contrast between the lives of the city’s many migrant workers and the gleaming metropolis they were building.  She soon discovered that the children of these workers were excluded from free public education without a local hukou household registration, forcing them to attend pricey informal private schools called minban — unregulated enterprises that fill the gap in the market. There are no guidelines governing the teaching standards or facilities at these schools.

The nation’s economic boom has created a constant stream of job-seekers to its cities, bringing with them more than 20 million children — worse, Beijing recently started shutting down minban over safety concerns, leaving migrant children with no schooling and no alternatives.

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Haryun Kim

Kim spent a year befriending and earning the trust of the children and teachers in one minban, creating a breathtakingly intimate portrait of their lives for A Class of Their Own. “I was like a piece of furniture in the room,” she told FCCJ’s audience during the Q&A. She spent several months getting to school earlier and leaving it later than anyone, and gradually selected her three main subjects. For different reasons, each of them leaves school by the end of the film.

A short version of Kim’s film debuted in an “impossible time slot” at the Asian Side of the Doc Festival in Chengdu last year, after unknown forces attempted to bar it from being shown at all. “There were Chinese people in the audience,” says Kim, “and they were shocked that migrant workers are such second-class citizens. They were also surprised that a foreigner was able to gain such access to their lives.”

Look for A Class of Their Own on the international festival circuit later this year.

— Photos by FCCJ.

a class of their own
©Summer Lotus Films


  PLOT FOR PEACE


 April 10, 2014
Q&A guests: Director Carlos Agulló and subject Jean-Yves Ollivier


plot for peace
Jean-Yves Ollivier, Carlos Agulló

“In 1981, arriving in South Africa felt like visiting another planet, like an American movie from the 1950s,” says Jean-Yves Ollivier in his no-holds-barred narration for Plot for Peace. “I wondered how the whites did not realize that, unless they changed and accepted to share the country, they were headed for disaster.”

Plot For Peace, which has been quietly picking up awards on the international festival circuit and is opening in Japan before it opens in the US, is history retold as political thriller, a riveting documentary that reveals the untold story of apartheid’s fall, focusing on the “mysterious Frenchman” Ollivier, alias “Monsieur Jacques,” an Algiers-born businessman who secretly set the dominoes in motion, using his personal relationships with heads of state to facilitate the mediation and peace processes that ultimately led to the birth of a new South Africa and Nelson Mandela’s release from jail.

Most of the attendees at FCCJ’s sneak preview screening had never heard of Ollivier, and didn’t remember many of the events replayed in the film’s horrific newsreel footage. Nor did they recall all the former statesmen, generals, diplomats, master spies and anti-apartheid fighters who appear in the film — except perhaps Winnie Mandela — talking us carefully through the maze of African politics of the time, clarifying events and roles in their frontline efforts to help end apartheid.

The “regional battlefield” that was a result of the ANC cells that set up in neighboring states, along with the international embargo on trade with Botha’s regime, were crimping Ollivier’s commodities business. So he decided to do something about it. For nearly a decade, he dared to fly (via Paris) from one neighboring African nation to another on his own dime, mediating between the Marxist-Leninists in Mozambique and Angola, the apartheid supporters, the French and the Americans. In the end, as Plot for Peace details, Ollivier’s tireless behind-the scenes negotiations eventually rewrote Africa’s future. But we didn’t know how we got there — until the film’s revelations.

after plot for peaceJean-Yves Ollivier joined audience members in the Main Bar after the screening,
where they continued to be riveted by his presence.

Not surprisingly, FCCJ’s audience had wideranging questions for Ollivier, who was named a Grand Officer of the Order of Good Hope by President Nelson Mandela in 1995, among many other honors.  Madrid-based director Carlos Agullo explained that a series of connections had led to his surprise involvement on the film, since he had directed neither a feature nor a documentary, and had not been to Africa. Ollivier told a number of anecdotes, but none was more well received than the one about his first meeting with Nelson Mandela, after the great man’s release from prison. Uncharacteristically, Ollivier had forgotten to bring along a camera, and when Mandela asked whether he’d like to take a photo with him, Ollivier covered with a charming excuse about how he would rather “keep this wonderful memory in my heart, not in a photograph.”

Veteran FCCJ journalist Edwin Karmiol asked whether Ollivier might be able to turn his hand to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and received a response that was open to interpretation. Plot for Peace is scheduled to be shown in Tel Aviv in May, and Ollivier plans to be there.

Following the success of the documentary, Agullo is now at work on a narrative version of the story. But the irrepressible Ollivier joked that he was told he would not be allowed to play himself in the new film.
Photos by Koichi Mori except where noted.
plot for peace poster

Media Coverage


  OYAKO: PRESENT TO THE FUTURE


 April 2, 2014
Q&A guests: Director Toshi Inomata, producer Yoshiko Inoue
and subject Bruce Osborn


Oyako
Toshi Inomata, Yoshiko Inoue, Bruce Osborn

It's no secret that FCCJ's Exhibition Committee Chair Bruce Osborn is a famed photographer. Now he is also the star of a film about his "life's work," the joyous portraits of Japanese families that he has been taking for the past 32 years. The MC premiered Oyako: Present to the Future on April 2 to an overstuffed house  close to 200 people. During the Q&A session, Osborn,  producer Yoshiko Inoue and director Toshi Inomata, discussed the project's beginnings, and their decision to pitch it on Motion Gallery, a crowdfunding site that eventually brought in 1/3 of their budget.

Osborn was once just a commercial photographer from Los Angeles; now he is the leader, with his wife Inoue, of a social movement in Japan. Arriving here in 1980, he was inspired to shoot a series of portraits of punk-rock musicians with their parents. Fascinated by the idiosyncrasies of the Japanese "oyako" (parent-child) relationship -- especially when he became a father himself -- he realized that the photos had given him entrée to observe Japanese culture at its most intimate. The revealing and sometimes humorous black-and-white portraits he took brought an overwhelming response from Japanese families -- and thus a movement was born.

filmmakersProducer Satoru Seki, Bruce Osborn, Toshi Inomata

Osborn went on to meet and photograph over 4,500 oyako from a variety of professional and personal backgrounds, and to create Oyako Day with Inoue in 2003, a would-be national holiday celebrating family bonds. For Oborn, it's been a way to document the changes in Japanese society; but as Present to the Future proves, the photos aren't just fun to shoot, they have brought estranged families back together again, brought laughter back to Fukushima following the 3/11 disaster, and brought out the best in everyone who has had the evident joy of posing.

With appearances that include fashion designer Junko Koshino, alpinist Yuichiro Miura, journalist Shuntaro Torigoe, filmmaker Nobuhiko Obayashi and superheroes Ultraman Zero and Ultra Seven, as well as historic footage, hundreds of photos and two short dramas casting real-life parents and children, the documentary underscores the Japanese belief that we are not isolated individuals. While everyone seems to have a different opinion how to express the meaning of "oyako," Osborn prefers this: "Oyako is the long, unbroken chain of life -- each of us is a link to the past and a bridge to the future."
Photos by Koichi Mori except where noted.

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Media Coverage


THE ACT OF KILLING  


 March 20, 2014
Q&A guest: Director Joshua Oppenheimer


Mar 20 14 movie The Act of Killing
Joshua Oppenheimer.  Photo © FCCJ

Joshua Oppenheimer's mega-award-winning documentary The Act of Killing, which focuses on the Indonesian genocide of 1965-66, was 8 years in the making, but took only one year to scoop up over 50 major awards, attract more coverage than just about any other documentary in history, and to completely rewrite the rules of nonfiction filmmaking. Exploring what one critic calls "the psychological gestalt of a country in which mass-murderers brag about their slaughtering -- and still intimidate their neighbors -- with complete impunity," Oppenheimer and his crew (most of whom remain anonymous, for fear of reprisal) encouraged two of the executioners, boastful that they've killed hundreds of "Communists," to reenact their atrocities -- as both perpetrators and victims -- in styles inspired by the classic Hollywood gangster movies they had idolized in their youths.

To audiences accustomed to seeing stories of genocide retold by the survivors and the families of victims, The Act of Killing is particularly disturbing. But Oppenheimer's masterpiece allows us to see the other side, to get beneath the skins of these villains, to probe for something deeper, to capture their conscience, to elicit a moral response. There is no question that he has achieved those aims -- and then some.

at the barOppenheimer joins like-minded souls in the Main Bar after the screening: Karen Severns (MC chair),
Alison Klayman and Colin Jones (director and producer of Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry), Argentinian documentarians
Patricio Lumini and Maria Sol Nakagama, and Act of Killing PA Shusaku Harada.

FCCJ's audience was most eager to question the director, and he was most eager to respond. Although he admitted that there has not been a major change in Indonesia since the film's release there (it is also downloadable online, where Oppenheimer has made it available for free), he faulted journalists for being fearful, for refusing to name names and to continue maintaining the status quo. He did note that one of the killers, Herman, had quit the Pancasila Youth paramilitary group that maintains a grip on Medan, upon seeing the film. "He is one of the only ones brave enough to go around holding screenings of the film," he said.

Oppenheimer is just completing a new film, The Look Of Silence, about a family of survivors in Medan who confront the men who murdered their son. He is still hopeful that the perpetrators will be brought to justice, and that the culture of complicity will be curtailed. But a trial at the International Criminal Court would "require the UN Security Council to refer the case, and that's not going to happen with the current members. Fifty years is long enough for [the US and the UK], as well as Japan, which is also implicated, to get comfortable with our roles eagerly supporting the killing machine."
Photos by Koichi Mori except where noted.

aok poster(c) Final Cut for Real Aps, Piraya Film AS and Novaya Zemlya LTD, 2012

Media Coverage

WELCOME to the Film Committee Blog


WELCOME to the Film Committee Blog


 FCCJ MCThe FCCJ is home to Japan’s only ongoing (free!) film series with English subtitles and filmmaker Q&A sessions. Over the past five years, we have hosted about 20 sneak previews and special screenings a year, making the Club a must-stop venue for previews of new releases, particularly specialty and award-winning films (although we don’t slight commercial releases if they are making news). Because our events provide a rare opportunity for filmmakers and stars to interact openly with the press, our Film Nights lead to great sound bites, photos and video grabs — resulting in generous, immediate coverage in Japanese print, broadcast and online media — and also act as a springboard to overseas sales and festival berths, since foreign correspondents and film critics often start the buzz after seeing the films here at FCCJ first. 

The Movie Committee goes after the most noteworthy, newsworthy films and filmmakers, seeking depth, breadth and variety as we line up titles large and small, narrative and documentary, foreign and Japanese, by known and up-and-coming directors. 

Although we host more intimate gatherings for issues-oriented documentaries, we’ve attracted huge crowds for films as diverse as Yang Li’s contentious documentary Yasukuni, Tra Ahn Hung’s Norwegian Wood, the late Koji Wakamatsu’s Caterpillar, the Osamu Mukai vehicle We Can’t Change the World, but We Wanna Build a School in Cambodia, Iranian maestro Amir Naderi’s Tokyo-set Cut, Yoko Narahashi’s Emperor, and even Underwater Love, the world’s first pink (soft-porn) musical. 

In the past few years, we have sneak previewed Japan’s official Oscar selections, Kaneto Shindo’s Postcard and Yonghi Yang’s Our Homeland, along with Oscar nominees Five Broken Cameras, from Palestine and Israel, Lucy Walker’s stunning The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom. After each screening, we have hosted animated Q&A sessions with a range of international and Japanese talent, including screen legends Kyoko Kagawa, Joe Shishido, Chieko Matsubara, Kiki Kilin and Koji Yakusho. 

In 2014, we will continue making every effort to bring noteworthy documentary and narrative films to the FCCJ in a timely manner — enabling members/guests and outside press not only to see them before their Japanese release, but always with English/Japanese subtitles and the presence of the filmmakers/stars themselves. The FCCJ is still the only venue in Japan that provides this privilege on an ongoing basis. 

The FCCJ now has a new website, and we are kicking off 2014 by starting this blog about our screening series. Check back frequently for postings on upcoming events, as well as photos and links to press coverage from past events.
Posted by Karen Severns

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