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21ST CENTURY GIRL


21ST CENTURY GIRL 
(21 Seiki no Onna no Ko)


February 6, 2019
Q&A guests: Producer-director Ū-ki Yamato and
directors Aya Igashi, Ayaka Kato, Risa Takeuchi and Yuka Yasukawa


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21st century women: Igashi, Kato, Yamato, Takeuchi, Yasukawa ©FCCJ

There are times when the Film Committee screens a work whose target audience is not the typical FCCJ demographic. This was one of those times.

But considering the dire statistics related to the global film industry — that women never account for more than 20% of the workforce, and that women directors helm an abysmal average of 7 – 10 % of the films made — it felt like the right time to expose attendees to something they wouldn’t normally watch.

Aimed squarely at a young, female viewership, 21st Century Girl is an omnibus feature that is (to borrow the producer’s declaration of independence) of the girls, by the girls and for the girls. The work of 15 women directors under the age of 30, each of whom contributed an 8-minute film, the package highlights a range of genres, visions and thematic concerns.

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© “21st Century Girl Film Partners” (ABC Rights Business, VAP)

The films are all beautifully shot, with top-notch production and costume design, and star some of Japan’s most popular actresses, including Kaho Minami, Ai Hashimoto, Shizuka Ishibashi, Mei Kurokawa, Kiki Sugino, Sairi Itoh and Serena Motola.

One need not be young, female or even Japanese to find points of empathy/ports of entry into these deeply-felt short stories, specific as they may be.

As Aya Igashi, one of the five directors who appeared at FCCJ's Q&A session, said, “The directors might be touching on something personal or on something universal, but I think the film delivers a direct message about what’s going on in women’s minds.”

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Clockwise from top left: Igashi, Kato, Yamato, Takeuchi, Yasukawa  ©FCCJ

21st Century Girl producer Ū-ki Yamato concurred. “All the protagonists in the films are female, in their teens or 20s,” she explained. “It was intentionally skewed to women in their 20s because what we’re all making is a kind of self-portrait. I think [taken all together], it’s a pure record of our lives and our reality.”

Many of the 15 emerging writer-directors have already won awards for their short work, have already appeared at Berlin, Cannes and other leading festivals, and have also released features. But none has yet tasted the box-office success that Yamato did with her 2016 release of Drowning Love. Rather than heading instantly into production on her next feature, as hitmakers are prone to do, she decided it was important to first develop and produce an ambitious, female-drive omnibus that would speak to the girls of the future.

When she had made the final selection of directors, she then gave them simple instructions. Recalled Yamato, “I requested that they capture a moment in which their sense of sexuality or gender was shaken or had wavered. That was the connecting theme between all the films. I did not give them any input on what kind of stories to tell or characters to depict.

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Producer-director Ū-ki Yamato and her film For Lonesome Blossoms 
Left: ©Koichi Mori  Right: © “21st Century Girl Film Partners” (ABC Rights Business, VAP)

“I don’t think there have been any other omnibus films like this anywhere else in the world, where all the films are directed by women in their 20s. It was a good opportunity to create a space for them to tell the stories they had to tell, at a time when their artistic sensitivities and imaginations are at their most ripe.”

Before its world premiere at the Tokyo International Film Festival last November, Yamato told the audience, “I think there are many wonderful forms of art, but only through cinema, which has arms so long that it can reach all the way into the most remote areas, can they all be consolidated and contribute to changing a woman’s life.”

Asked during the Q&A session at FCCJ how she hoped the film might change female lives, Yamato responded, “Most art and film depicts women as objects. I wanted to counter that with films that portray them as strong, proactive characters. I wanted to convey [such characters] to rural regions in Japan, especially. I want these stories to leap beyond the boundaries of urban areas, because there’s a larger gender gap in rural areas. And I hope they also cross boundaries to the rest of Asia. All of Asia is heavily infused with Confucian [patriarchal] philosophy, and women are more repressed.”

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Director Aya Igashi and her film Your Sheet 
Left: ©Koichi Mori  Right: 
© “21st Century Girl Film Partners” (ABC Rights Business, VAP)

Yamato’s own short film in the omnibus, For Lonesome Blossoms, also elaborates on the role that cinema can play. It features 3 women dancing in a garden (one of whom is played by Erika Karata of Asako I & II), representing a “holy trinity of Mother, God and Cinema.” They celebrate life and love before delivering a manifesto: “We will return the three primary colors to cinema, and for the first time, those working in the shadows will appear… We will create the ultimate art, combining love, language, religion and politics.”

Admitted Aya Igashi, “When I saw the full film, I felt like I’d never seen anything like it before. It was really hard to digest, because each short film was so dense with meaning.”

Igashi, whose Your Sheet focuses on Saho, a young woman living with her boyfriend who seems to be pining for or fantasizing about a female love, explained, “My film was just a way of answering as best I could the question about a moment that had shaken my gender or sexuality. But it’s not that I limited myself to the constraints of the project; what you’re seeing is my natural inclination as a filmmaker.”

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Director Ayaka Kato and her film Mucous Membrane  
Left: ©Koichi Mori  Right: 
© “21st Century Girl Film Partners” (ABC Rights Business, VAP)

With her 2018 feature Crimson Star having earning critical raves and begun its international festival journey, Igashi also said, “I want as many women as possible to see the film, but I also want to reach as wide a demographic as possible. I think that’s what being a filmmaker and telling stories is all about. You do want to bring your art to the masses.”

Ayaka Kato noted that although there was a unified theme, “Everyone’s films are very different from each other’s. It’s only natural that each film is uniquely the director’s own.” Kato’s film Mucous Membrane opens with a memorable shot of a woman counting the hairs on her lover’s toe in extreme closeup, and focuses on two young women who work in a flower shop, as they deal with their relationships with men and gender expectations.

The director, whose second feature, Itsumo Tsukiyo ni Kome no Meshi, was released in Japan in 2018, later mentioned, “I think my segment was the only one that depicts sexual relationships between men and women. There are women in the world who happen to like sex, but it seems there’s still a taboo about them expressing themselves in that way. I wonder why it’s women only who are given this [stamp of shame]?”

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Director Risa Takeuchi and her film Mirror
 Left: ©Koichi Mori  Right:
© “21st Century Girl Film Partners” (ABC Rights Business, VAP)

Risa Takeuchi, whose feature Mitsuko and the Space Bump was released in Japanese theaters in 2018, agreed with Kato about the omnibus: “Even though there may be connecting themes or overlapping stories, there are also differences in each story, and I think we’ve been able to portray reality.”

Risa Takeuchi’s own short film, Mirror, concerns the visit of a young woman to the gallery show of a celebrated “lesbian photographer,” who turns out to be her former lover. While it shares the motif of voyeurism with several of the other works, one of its concerns is the boxes that artists are put into, and the lengths they’ll go to create work.

She later noted that although she’d felt a bit uncomfortable about being restricted to addressing the theme of gender or sexuality, “As I continue in my career, I think I won’t be able to avoid them. So I feel this was the first time that I was really being tested as a filmmaker.” 

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Director Yuka Yasukawa and her film Muse 
Left: ©Koichi Mori  Right: 
© “21st Century Girl Film Partners” (ABC Rights Business, VAP)

Yuka Yasukawa recalled that she was “keen on participating in this project because when it comes to gender, society tends to pigeonhole roles for males and females. People seem to have a really one-dimensional sense of what a woman is.”

Her film Muse depicts a photographer (played by Shizuka Ishibashi of The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue) who befriends the wife of a famous novelist (Jun Murakami), whose heroines always die young. Before the photographer realizes she’s fallen in love, however, there is a tragedy.

Said the director, “I wanted to depict this kind of story because it’s about a novelist who fictionalizes his own wife. I thought that was a really invasive thing to do, to repress her personality until it’s one dimensional. But the female photographer is able to see this novelist’s muse as a whole person.”

And taken all together, that’s the accomplishment of 21st Century Girl: that a whole female, in all her complexity and full of promise, emerges. When Ayaka Kato remarked, “I’d love to see us all come together again in 30 years to make a film about grandmothers of the 21st century,” a substantial portion of the audience nodded and smiled.

Yamato mentioned that an article in the Asahi Shimbun last month reported that only 3% of the major films made over the past 20 years in Japan had female directors. So remember these names: Yuka Eda, Momoko Fukuda, Kanae Higashi, Aya Igashi, Yurina Kaneko, Ayaka Kato, Hana Matsumoto, Aimi Natsuto, Yukari Sakamoto, Rin Shuto, Yuka Yasukawa, Risa Takeuchi, Sakura Tamagawa, Yoko Yamanaka, Ū-ki Yamato.

They have fully committed to ongoing careers in the film industry, and their time is now.

 

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© “21st Century Girl Film Partners” (ABC Rights Business, VAP) 

 

Selected Media Exposure

 


ASIAN THREE-FOLD MIRROR PANEL AND SCREENING IN COLLABORATION WITH TIFF


October 3, 2018
Q&A guests: Directors Isao Yukisada and Daishi Matsunaga,
TIFF Director Takeo Hisamatsu, Japan Foundation President Hiroyasu Ando,
TIFF Japan Now advisor Kohei Ando


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Daishi Matsunaga and Isao Yukisada screened their Asian-shot films at FCCJ. ©Mance Thompson

The Film Committee’s annual event in conjunction with the Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) did not focus, as it has for the past decade, on the Japanese films in this year’s 31st edition. Instead, two of Japan’s most acclaimed directors, Isao Yukisada (Go, River’s Edge) and Daishi Matsunaga (Pieta in the Toilet, Hanalei Bay), joined us to discuss their participation in the omnibus film project Asian Three-Fold Mirror.

A coproduction between the Japan Foundation Asia Center and TIFF, Asian Three-Fold Mirror has twice brought together three young directors from Japan and other Asian countries to co-create omnibus films with a common theme. The first volume, Asian Three-Fold Mirror 2016: Reflections, which included Yukisada’s Pigeon, debuted at the 29th TIFF. On October 26, the second volume, Asian Three-Fold Mirror 2018: Journey, which includes Matsunaga’s Hekishu, will have its world premiere at the 31st TIFF.

Prior to the special screening of Pigeon and a sneak preview of Journey, the directors spoke briefly of their experiences working outside Japan. “I’ve been really influenced by Asian films,” said Yukisada. “In Malaysia, where I shot Pigeon, there’s a very famous director called Yasmin Ahmad, whose work really influenced me. Unfortunately, she passed away recently. But I wondered how my own filmmaking might change when combined with the atmosphere of Malaysian film. The tradition of filmmaking in each country should be enjoyed and appreciated, and I have very fond memories of my experience working with an international cast and crew in Malaysia.”  

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Clockwise from uppper left: TIFF Director Takeo Hisamatsu, Japan Foundation President Hiroyasu Ando,
TIFF Japan Now Programming Advisor Kohei Ando, Yukisada, Matsunaga. Top right ©Mance Thompson, Others ©FCCJ

Matsunaga agreed. “I worked with a crew from China, Indonesia, Myanmar and the UK on Hekishu, which was shot in Myanmar,” he said. “It was really a great experience, allowing me to learn a lot and grow as a director.”

Discussing the importance of this ongoing coproduction project for the film festival, TIFF Director Takeo Hisamatsu told the FCCJ audience, “TIFF has been focusing on Asia and other themes since my predecessor’s time. Of course we’re an international film festival, so we think it’s important for a number of reasons, including distance, to have a strong relationship and interactions with other countries in Asia. We would like to continue working with the Japan Foundation Asia Center to focus more attention on the region. We believe that Asian Three-Fold Mirror is a wonderful project, and we hope it will continue.”

Providing important context for the project, Japan Foundation President Hiroyasu Ando noted, “Fifty-three percent of the world’s population is in Asia, and the rapidly growing economies of the region are acting as an engine for the world economy. Most of the foreign tourists coming to Japan are Asian. For these and other reasons, we believe Asia will continue to be very important to Japan, and we are working to create a two-way cultural flow between Japan and the cultures of Asia.”

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The panel shares a laugh.  ©Koichi Mori
 

When queried specifically about the future of Asian Three-Fold Mirror, he responded, “The Japan Foundation would like to continue working with TIFF on cultural exchanges between Japan and Asian countries. Asia is a vast region, and we’re looking forward to hearing feedback from audiences at TIFF as well as around Asia, in regards to the direction of the next Asian Three-Fold Mirror project.”

Hisamatsu also spoke briefly about some of the other highlights at this year’s festival, which runs from October 25 – November 3. Among them is the addition of a Best Director prize in the Japanese Cinema Splash section, which is devoted to indie film and has nurtured the careers of such notable filmmakers are Rikiya Imaizumi, Daigo Matsui, Eiji Uchida and Hirobumi Watanabe.

Programming Advisor Kohei Ando also revealed some of the highlights of his Japan Now lineup. “There’s a global trend right now to reduce everything to a slogan, like ‘America First,’” he said. “With this year’s Japan Now, we want to do the opposite, and focus on films that highlight Japanese ambiguity. We are showcasing the work of internationally renowned actor Koji Yakusho, who’s famous for revealing the ambiguous natures of the diverse characters that he’s played. We’re starting with his starring role in The Eel, which won the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival 20 years ago, and showing a total of five films, including his latest, Blood of Wolves, in which he portrays a very ambiguous detective. Mr. Yakusho will be attending every screening for a Q&A session, along with the film’s directors. We are also showing nine other films that are among the best works of this past year.”

(Included in the Japan Now lineup is Yukisada’s River’s Edge. Not included, to Ando’s regret, is Matsunaga’s Hanalei Bay, the adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story. The film opens just before TIFF and thus wasn’t available for festival screenings.)  

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©2018, ©2016 The Japan Foundation. All Rights Reserved.

Following the Asian Three-Fold Mirror screenings, Yukisada and Matsunaga returned to the dais and fielded a range of questions about their omnibus contributions.

Prompted for examples of differences in film production styles, Yukisada said, “In Malaysia, film shoots begin with a group photo, followed by a meal together. The Japanese crew members got really impatient about that, but it dawned on me that it was really Malaysian. They want to work together in harmony, so they take the time to share a meal and get to know each other before they start working. Unlike Japanese crews, Malaysians will never argue on set. They avoid conflict as much as possible. I think it encapsulates Malaysia, because it’s a nation where so many people from diverse cultures are living and working together. I really felt ashamed of our Japanese impatience, and I felt it was a great lesson.”

Matsunaga mentioned that he had shot Hanalei Bay in Hawaii before shooting in Myanmar, and noted that both places are far stricter about crews not working as long without a break as they do in Japan. “In Myanmar,” he said, “if you work over 12 hours, it becomes another day and you’re charged accordingly. That would be unthinkable in Japan. Even though Myanmar’s film industry is still developing, they’re already protecting casts and crews in this way. I felt the crew had great respect for my wishes, and would try their best to realize them. In my limited experience with Japanese crews, that’s not the case. Everyone seems to have their own ideas here, which they feel strongly about. It felt really liberating, working with the international crew in Myanmar.”

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Hiroki Hasegawa in Hekishu. ©2018 The Japan Foundation. All Rights Reserved

A journalist from Indonesia asked how it came about that popular Indonesian actor Nicholas Saputra appeared in all three of the Journey films. Matsunaga answered, “I had Skype meetings, as well as meeting in person with my fellow omnibus directors, Degena Yun [from Inner Mongolia, China] and Edwin [from Indonesia], and we decided that we should have a common theme that would unite our three films. We also decided, since Nicholas had already been cast to star in Edwin’s film, that we could give him small cameos in each of our films, as a way to further unite our work. Nicholas’ role in Edwin’s film is a rather mysterious Japanese-like man, and that inspired both me and Degena in our scripts.”

Matsunaga’s Hekishu is set in Yangon, Myanmar, which is experiencing rapid democratization and urban renewal, although the old cityscape is still prominent, especially around the city’s slow-moving circular railway. A Japanese businessman, Suzuki (Hiroki Hasegawa of Shin Godzilla) arrives to work on the implementation of a new rapid-transit system. Yet, after meeting a Burmese seamstress named Su Su (Nandar Myat Aung), he begins to question just how much progress is actually good for the residents, many of whom will be displaced by the upgrade.

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©Mance Thompson

"I wanted to show the existing railway, and capture it as it is, almost like a documentary,” recalled Matsunaga. “I started my career with documentaries, and that appealed to me. When I thought about who I should cast for the role of the businessman, I wanted an actor who wouldn’t draw too much attention to himself, to maintain this documentary feel. I thought of Mr. Hasegawa because he has a unique presence, but at the same time, I thought he would blend into the landscape of Myanmar.”

Asked how he had cast Nandar Myat Aung, who is a first-time actressl, Matsunaga said, “We had assistance from the Myanmar-based production company and held auditions with professionals. But I wanted someone who wouldn’t ‘act,’ since it would undermine Mr. Hasegawa’s naturalness. We found her at an art school [where she’s currently studying film].”

Yukisada’s Pigeon is set in Penang, Malaysia, which is home to many Japanese retirees. The story revolves around a lonely old man (acting legend Masahiko Tsugawa) who lives in a spacious house and keeps pigeons on the roof. After his greedy son (Masatoshi Nagase) visits and flies into a rage, the old man grows even closer to his empathetic caregiver, Yasmin (Sharifah Amani). With her help, he is finally able to visit the beach where his brothers were killed during WWII and to make peace with their spirits.  

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Sharifah Amani and Masahiko Tsugawa in Pigeon. ©2016 The Japan Foundation. All Rights Reserved

Yukisada was asked about working with Tsugawa, who died in early August. “When I heard about his death, it was really a shock for me, as well as for the people we worked with on the film,” he recalled. “He was famous for hating to work overseas, and it was an incredible honor that he agreed to accept the role and come to Malaysia. It was the only chance I’d had to work with him, and he was playing a role that was based on my own grandfather. His intensity intimidated the cast and crew at first, but they came to really love him. None of us will ever forget the experience of working with him.”

Yukisada also spoke about casting his actress. “Sharifah Amani had been acting in the films of Yasmin Ahmad, the director I respected so much, since she was a child. After I couldn’t find anyone appropriate during auditions, I contacted her and reached her when she was shopping in a department store. So I rushed to the store and met her in a coffee shop there. It was so surprising how generally cheerful she is, yet when she’s hurt or depressed, she cries like a small child. It’s really rare to find someone like that.”

A Malaysian journalist lauded Yukisada’ direction, saying that Pigeon felt “very much like a Malaysian, not a Japanese, film.” How, he wondered, did the director write such realistic interactions between the Malaysian characters and direct them to such authentic performances? 

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 ©Mance Thompson

“What a compliment! Thank you,” responded Yukisada. “I have to admit that it was Sharifah Amani and the other actress, whom she had recommended, who came up with ideas. I wrote the storyline, but the details, and their reactions, were devised by the two women. I’m sure that’s why you felt it was so authentic.”

He couldn’t resist adding, “Also, I must say that Malaysian actors are surprisingly good at pronouncing Japanese as if they understand every line. They all grow up watching Japanese animated shows like Captain Tsubasa, Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon. That’s where the line about Sailor Moon came from.

Asian Three-Fold Mirror 2016: Reflections is getting a theatrical release in Tokyo — after 2 years making the rounds of festivals and special events overseas — from October 12-18. Following its world premiere at TIFF, Asian Three-Fold Mirror 2018: Journey will also be theatrically released, from November 9 to 15.

Poster Visual Tokyo International Film Festival

Selected Media Exposure

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