Friday, March 18, 2016
March 17, 2016
Q&A guests: Director Eiji Uchida, producer Adam Torel and star Kiyohiko Shibukawa
The official signing ceremony for submission to the OED. ©Mance Thompson
For over 1,000 years, the word “gesu” has represented those of the very lowest social rank in Japan, but in this single expression, the stench of scummy, slummy, vulgar, reprobate behavior is also emitted.
Like many other Japanese expressions — mono no aware, umami and omotenashi come to mind — gesu has a level of specificity that cannot easily be communicated in English. Recognizing that its English equivalent, lowlife, falls short, the filmmakers behind Lowlife Love publicly signed a submission to include the Japanese word in the venerable Oxford English Dictionary following their sneak preview event at FCCJ. A calculated publicity stunt? Sure. But why not? It’s no worse than having Sadako throwing out the first ball.
The film’s director, Eiji Uchida, British producer Adam Torel and star Kiyohiko Shibukawa tried to effect serious expressions as the press snapped their OED “signing ceremony,” but they were clearly having too much fun. Their Q&A session had just proven that, despite the lowlifes populating their film, they themselves were class acts.
Torel, Shibukawa, Uchida ©Mance Thompson
Uchida based his script on some of the more extreme incidents he had himself experienced and witnessed over a decade in the industry (he’d started his film career as an assistant director to Kitano "Beat" Takeshi). When he was approached by Torel, who had produced Sion Sono’s Land of Hope and Yosuke Fujita’s Fukuchan of Fukufuku Flats, Uchida suggested a blackly comic exposé of Japan’s no-budget film industry, focused around the Shimokitazawa area of Tokyo, perhaps as an act of personal exorcism. The film was shot, as the producer admitted, “for a bit less than $50,000, which is why we shot in my apartment, [Uchida’s] office, the place I always drink, and had a crew of about nine… and we didn’t sleep. But we did pay everyone, so don’t worry.”
Lowlife Love, which drew SRO crowds at its international premiere at the Rotterdam Film Festival in January, and heads to festivals in Taiwan and Italy next month, focuses on Japan’s lowest rung of filmmakers: those who work for nothing, pay nothing to their cast and crew, exploit every possible angle to get their films made (legal and otherwise), and always plead “artistic integrity” as their excuse for failure. Why do they do it? The film makes it clear that love of cinema is one driver; the other is burning ambition. When one considers that there were close to 600 Japanese films released in theaters in 2015, that ambition is perhaps not misplaced — although theatrical release does not equal sustainable incomes for the industry’s bottom-feeders. They’re forced to get other jobs or to churn out porn to survive between “real” gigs, helping sustain the shockingly misogynistic subculture that is the milieu plumbed in Lowlife Love.
Uchida is an ex-journalist and film industry veteran, unintentionally rocking an Osamu Tezuka look. ©Mance Thompson
Asked during the Q&A whether he was skewering or exploiting that subculture, the writer-director answered: “The portrayal of women and the perception of misogyny was something that the producer pointed out to me during filming,” said Uchida. “But the reality of the Japanese entertainment industry, and not just the film industry, is that the female talents are placed in a very weak position. The reality is much harsher than in the film.” Added Torel: “It’s a very gesu world in Japan, in the film industry and especially the independent film industry, maybe more than anywhere else. It’s slightly exaggerated in the film, but compared to the West, it’s still behind the times here.”
Shibukawa is an indie favorite, long overdue for a big-budget, leading-man role. ©Mance Thompson
In the film, struggling director Tetsuo (Shibukawa) still nurses dreams of success, although in the years since an early indie hit, he’s succeeded only in making himself one of the most hated guys around. (“I’m not unemployed — I’m a film director!” he protests, when his mother complains about supporting him.) His past record still attracts ambitious youngsters to his “acting” courses, and one day, he meets two new students whose talents are ripe for exploitation: Minami, a naïve wannabe actress with serious chops, and Ken, a writer with a brilliant script. Tetsuo enlists the help of an unsavory producer (played with panache by Denden), but their efforts to get a film made are undercut by the desperate, unrelenting degeneracy of their world.
Is it a world that extends beyond the no-budget scene? In a recent Japan Times article about the entertainment industry travails of SMAP and Becky, Mark Schilling called Lowlife Love “required viewing” and wrote, “[it] confirms what I have known for years: Japanese show business can be brutal to the weak or clueless. They end up used and discarded, like so many human Kleenexes.”
Torel's producing slate is all over the stylistic map, but he and Uchida are already in preproducion on Animal Trail. ©Mance Thompson
During the Q&A, Uchida referenced the problems caused by Japan’s all-powerful talent agencies, which control not only the careers but also the lives of their stars. He mentioned that just that morning, he’d been admonished by a talent manager for contacting an actor directly. “So often, projects are developed here without any regard whatsoever for what’s needed,” said the director. “I really hope a time will come when Japanese actors can make their own decisions about what projects they want to be involved in.”
Indie stalwart Shibukawa, who won Best Actor awards last year for his role as an indie filmmaker in Obon Brothers (a director who is as sweet and selfless as his Lowlife character is slimy), admitted he’d been contacted directly by Uchida about the script. “He was so passionate about it,” he said, “I decided right away that I wanted to be in the film, even before reading the script.” A regular in roles for Takashi Miike, Gakuryu Ishii and Toshiaki Toyoda, Shibukawa has appeared in over 60 films, but remains woefully underrepresented in big-budget releases (he does have a brief but indelible role in Miike’s upcoming Terra Formars).
That OED submission for gesu. Stay tuned. ©Mance Thompson
Naturally, the trio was queried about their own lowlife experiences in the industry, but their stories were disappointingly tame, compared to those in their film. Recalled Uchida: “This happened when I just started making films. We had a wrap party, and about 30 of us piled into a room. When it was over, the producer was nowhere to be found, and I got stuck with the bill. That’s not an uncommon occurrence.” Said Torel: “There’s a producer I know, who shall remain nameless, who spends all his time looking for actresses on Facebook, and telling them that if they meet him for drinks, they have a good chance of being in a big director’s film. And he takes them out every night, to very dodgy places. He’s not a nice guy.”
Shibukawa remembered, “There was an actor on a shoot who was way more powerful than the director. His character was supposed to be killed by me, very quickly. But he just wouldn’t die. He kept insisting that he wouldn’t die that easily.” [Those who attended our January screening of The Actor will recognize this very scene from the film.]
— Photos by Mance Thompson and Koichi Mori.
Kanji Furutachi (in mask) drops by to say howdy. He plays a far more successful director
than Shibukawa in the film, and the two have an epic fistfight. ©Koichi Mori
©2016 Three Window Films
Thursday, November 05, 2015
November 2, 2015
Q&A guest: Director Kazuaki Kiriya
Kiriya's new film is in independent production, with Hollywood stars and an international
cast and crew — a trend he sees as positive for the industry. Photos ©Mance Thompson
Fans of Kazuaki Kiriya’s first two epic adventure stories, both innovative special-effects extravaganzas — Casshern (2004), in which a reincarnated warrior saves the world from genetically modified human mutants, and Goemon (2009), a ninja thriller based on the Japanese folk hero who resembles Robin Hood — probably weren’t surprised when they heard that his new film is a take on the legendary revenge tale Chushingura, aka 47 Ronin. But for the first time in his career, the idea didn’t originate with Kiriya himself.
His Last Knights marks several other significant milestones in the director’s career. Not only is it his debut English-language film, it is also the first time he didn’t shoot on a digital backlot in Japan. Even more impressively, it stars no less than Morgan Freeman and Clive Owen as the two leads, with a wealth of award-winning actors in supporting roles. The number of Japanese directors who have helmed big-budget English-language films featuring Hollywood stars can be counted on just about two fingers — and both of them made J-horror remakes.
The emcee was happy to leave the floor to the locquacious director.
Photo ©Mance Thompson
During a thoroughly candid Q&A session following a sneak preview screening of Last Knights — candor is clearly one of Kiriya’s defining traits, along with charm, self-reflection and occasional self-deprecation — he recalled receiving the script (by Canadian Michael Konyves) from producer Jim Thompson in 2009, and wanting to make it immediately. “But unfortunately,” he said, “there was another project in development called 47 Ronin, with Keanu Reeves. So the studios rejected this film and that left us the independent route. So we went around the world to get financing for the film, and that took us two or three years before we could go into production.”
The unlikely hero was Owen, the Oscar-nominated British star who’s been carving out a new audience (pun intended) with his TV hit The Knick. “Clive helped us get financing. He was the first on board,” Kiriya said. “I sent him the script, he liked it and he saw my film [Goemon]. After two weeks, I got a call from him and he said he was in. Then he waited [for production to start for] three years. He’s a cool guy.”
No argument here, ahem. Owen is absolutely electrifying in Last Knights, which transplants the 47 ronin to a European-ish setting during the Middle Ages, focusing on feudal warriors who seek to avenge the loss of their master at the hands of a sadistic minister. Owen is Commander Raiden, head of a band of elite soldiers and surrogate son to Bartok (Freeman), the lord of a vassal kingdom. For his services and devotion, Bartok names Raiden his heir and gives him a cherished sword. But when Bartok refuses to pay a bribe to a greedy minister and speaks openly (and eloquently, as only Freeman can) about the corruption of the empire, he is sentenced to death, with Raiden forced to be his executioner. Bartok's estate is divided and the clan disbanded as Raiden nurses his despair with alcohol, falling so low he even sells Bartok’s sword for more drink. After a year, Raiden’s men and his wife will have nothing more to do with him. Yet the evil minister still suspects the men will attempt to exact vengeance… and with good reason.
Last Knights was sold to 30 territories, but Japan wasn’t one
of them. Kiriya is working with Gaga on the nationwide release.
Loyalty, honor and payback are familiar themes in Japanese films, but Last Knights doesn’t exactly go where it’s expected to go, and the sword-fighting scenes, which don’t occur until quite late (by Hollywood standards), are not the point. This is a more contemplative, more realistic approach than the Keanu Reeves version, shot on stunning locations throughout the Czech Republic, in mostly natural lighting, by the great Mexican cinematographer Antonio Riestra. Chambara fanboys may be disappointed, but patient viewers will be amply rewarded.
“This movie is not about the battles,” Kiriya emphasized. “It’s about the conflict between the world of material[ism] and the world of the soul, the spirit. That argument is valid is this world today. Everybody worships materials and things, but does that make us happy? I know it’s a cliché, idealistic notion, but it’s a huge question that we’re hearing more now.”
Speaking of the film’s “mix of peoples,” as one audience member put it (critics dubbed it “a veritable Middle Ages melting pot”), Kiriya explained, “Originally, the script was written to be played by Japanese actors, and it was set in Japan. Like Memoirs of a Geisha, with an Asian cast, shot in Asia but all in English. But I was thinking about doing it more like Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, which is Shakespeare transplanted to Japan. Then I decided, let’s forget the race issue, let’s just find the best actors from all over the world. That’s what I told my casting agent, and we got actors from 17 countries. I was very lucky to get these actors.” (At which point, Kiriya ticked off many of their names, with exclamations like “wow!” and “I mean, come on,” punctuating each.)
“I’m hoping that this will become a trend,” continued Kiriya, “to open the doors to actors from Asia, the Middle East, to break the typecasting. That was my intention.”
Kiriya with the Japanese poster, adorned with raves
from a range ofJapanese stars.
Photo ©Mance Thompson
It wasn’t just the film’s cast that hailed from far and wide; after the 50-day shoot in Europe ended, Kiriya presided over a truly global post-production process. His Oscar-winning editor, Mark Sanger (Gravity), “happened to be in London, and I happened to be in Tokyo,” laughed Kiriya. “But we just communicated on Skype and we edited online. I think it’s a beautiful thing that’s happening in the film world — we can collaborate [through the internet] in the true sense… We had the orchestra in Moscow, I was in LA with the musical team, and we connected through the internet in real time. They played, we gave them notes right there, [the score] was recorded and it was done. The CGI was done mostly in Korea, but also in India and Louisiana, everything was done online.”
But Kiriya lamented the “unforgiving” nature of today’s film industry, where studio budgets have now ballooned to $300 million on a regular basis (Kiriya’s was closer to $22 million), and many directors have fled to the greener pastures of television production. “It’s becoming very, very unforgiving. [Films have] to be in a specified style, fit a certain format, a certain taste, a certain genre. Even in the ’80s, we never saw what we’re seeing today. It’s very difficult, especially for small, independent filmmakers. They make great, small films but you can’t watch them — the theaters are all closing, because even for promotion, you need a lot of money. Everything’s become about the business model, not art. It’s the battle of the business models.”
Kiriya chats about the industry with critics from Twitch Film,
the Japan Times and Metropolis.
To a question about differences between the original 47 Ronin story and Last Knights, Kiriya responded: “I fought really hard to keep the essence… at some point, I was going to make Morgan Freeman commit harakiri [as per the original], but at the last minute, we changed it. It’s like, harakiri is already a stereotype, a Japanese thing, like Mount Fuji, sakura, sushi, sumo, harakiri, right? I didn’t want to go there.” While the audience laughed, Kiriya hesitated, and then explained that his grandfather had committed suicide after the war, and that it was personal to him. “I just didn’t want it to be that kitsch Japanese thing. [Harakiri] is a sacred act, it’s called ‘self-deciding’ in Japanese. So I had Clive Owen kill him instead, since they’re like father and son. I’m proud of that scene. I think it was a good choice.”
—Spoiler alert —
As for the ending — which does not, like the original tale, feature a mass suicide, but is seemingly unclear about the fate of Raiden — Kiriya said, “Again, we needed to transcend that Japanese thing, that stereotype, of the spirit of the samurai. But to me, the samurai spirit [exists] in Europe, in America, in Africa, China, everywhere. What did I mean by the ending? I want audiences to decide.”
— Photos by Koichi Mori where uncredited.
©2015 Luka Productions