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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.


Media Coverage



 January 8, 2015
Q&A guests: Stars Shota Sometani and Atsuko Maeda, and director Ryuichi Hiroki

Pandemonium ensues as 11 TV cameras and dozens of Japanese press
join an already packed Q&A session.

It isn’t often that a sneak preview Q&A is hijacked by a celebrity news story — but that’s what threatened to happen at our first screening event of the new year. Just days before, Kabukicho Love Hotel star Shota Sometani had announced his marriage to Oscar-nominated actress Rinko Kikuchi, and FCCJ was his first appearance since the news hit the headlines. The Japanese media were thus out in force, descending in huge numbers upon the club, all hoping for a few words about married life. Sometani complied (in spades, considering that the wedding announcement had been so tersely worded), and coverage of his prime sound bites was extensive. (They logged the longest airtime given to any coverage in Japan the next day: 19 minutes, 7 seconds) (!).

Director Ryuchi Hiroki began the Q&A by congratulating him, and Sometani thanked him with a grin. “I just got married, and I am relishing this happiness,” he said. “We don’t have any children yet, but we hope to in the future, and I’ll work hard at being the patriarch.” His choice of “patriarch” was pointed, since Kikuchi is 11 years his senior.

Hiroki  sometani  maeda
Hiroki, Sometani, Maeda

The focus on Sometani was a little distracting, considering that his costar, Atsuko Maeda, is one of Japan’s most famous celebrities, and that the film itself was extremely well received by the FCCJ audience. From its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last September, through screenings in Korea, Hawaii, Singapore and Tokyo FILMeX, Kabukicho Love Hotel has been garnering the best buzz in recent memory. It marks a welcome return to awards level for Hiroki, whose work has continued to be overshadowed by the success of his 2003 masterpiece, Vibrator.

“Where secrets hide and dreams rest — for a short while” is the tagline of his outrageously engaging new film, set in Tokyo’s seedy-but-perennially-trendy red light district in Shinjuku. By turns hilarious and heartbreaking, slapsticky and sexually charged, Kabukicho Love Hotel is a rousing crowd-pleaser, a must-see for anyone who has wanted to take a vicarious peek at all those over-decorated rooms in Japan’s love hotels, as well as anyone curious about how such businesses are actually run.

The director and stars pose for an endless photo call after the Q&A session.

Pulling back the covers on a variety of today’s social and economic ills, the film is a clever — and perfectly cast — ensemble piece covering 24 hours at the Atlas Hotel, a rather pricey and popular establishment that attracts lovers, cheaters, scouts and “delivery girls,” presided over by down-on-his-luck hotel manager Toru (Sometani) and a ragtag staff, including a cleaning lady (Kaho Minami, brilliant as always) who harbors a dark secret. Korean delivery girl Heya (an excellent Eun-woo Lee) meets clients several times on this, her final day of work; two cops book a room for an illicit romp but discover something more interesting than sex; a scout brings in an underage recruit but winds up falling for her; and a paunchy man walks his well-endowed “dog” through the corridors. On this business-as-usual day, Toru makes sure everyone knows he’s meant for far better things, but he has a few surprises in store for him: First, he learns that his sister has become a porn star; then his singer girlfriend (Maeda) shows up with a music producer and proceeds to sign a record deal.

Although there are several softcore sex scenes, Sometani and Maeda barely exchange more than a kiss, prompting one journalist to ask whether they would “consider going all the way on film.” Sometani answered that he’d done love scenes in the past and would again, if the script required it.  Maeda concurred, “I feel the same way. If there’s a need and the script requires it, then I have no problem doing such a scene.” Male hearts were surely lifted everywhere — the singer-actress spent seven years as the most popular member of the virginal girl band AKB48, and her film career hasn’t yet dispelled that image.

To a question about doing research (nudge, nudge, wink, wink), Hiroki reminded the audience that his career began in Kabukicho, and that he was quite familiar with the love-hotel industry. (In the 1980s, the director had forged a path as “the prince of youth porn,” directing many pink and AV titles before branching out into more commercial productions.) The film makes extensive use of locations in that part of Shinjuku, and includes an actual Hate Speech rally in nearby Shin Okubo. Hiroki explained, “These demonstrations have been occurring in the area, and it’s embarrassing for Japan that they’re happening. I felt there was no need to cover it up, and it was right to show it.”

The Kabukicho Love Hotel theme song, a catchy tune that swells over the end credits, is called Believe in Love, belying many, but not all, of the film’s “love” stories. The night’s final question addressed that belief. After a pause and a laugh, Hiroki said,  “Love is important, yeah.” Brief struggle for words. “Love is everything.” Maeda also laughed, then replied, “I feel like I’m supported by many people in my work, so I’m very aware of the importance of love.”  Said Sometani, whose newly minted marriage lent added oomph to his answer: “There are many kinds of love, and I like the word ‘love.’ Yes, I believe.”
  Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

kabukicho s
©2014 Kabukicho Love Hotel Film Partners, Gambit/Happinet

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