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FIRST LOVE


FIRST LOVE (Hatsukoi)


 February 25, 2020
Q&A guests: Director Takashi Miike and star Masataka Kubota


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Kubota (left) and Miike reunite after a decade for a noirish love story... with comic elements.  ©Koichi Mori

If the FCCJ audience expected Takashi Miike to be as outrageous, outlandish or outré as many of his films, they were sorely disappointed. Appearing at the Q&A session following a sneak peek of his new film, he was gracious, thoughtful and on occasion, droll — reminding us that the artist and the art are not always made of the same stuff.

But it should come as no surprise that even the Godfather of Asian Extreme plays by the rules of civil engagement at home in Japan. That partially explains how the compulsively prolific auteur has managed to direct over 100 features (in every possible genre, including several that he invented), since 1991. These have justly earned him global adulation and notoriety; yet he is also a critics’ favorite, having won awards at every leading film festival from Berlin to Cannes to Venice to Toronto, and been more widely distributed overseas than any other Japanese filmmaker.

While he's provided plenty of instant ramen for fanboys over the years, Miike has also proven with numerous titles, from The Bird People in China to Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, that he can produce restrained, humanistic works when the mood strikes. His latest, a violently pulpy action-comedy-thriller about a lonely boxer who finds a soulmate, gives us both sides of Miike: the sober, introspective romantic and the gleefully subversive bad boy.

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  ©Koichi Mori

But First Love is no blushing romance. Told with hurtling kinetic oomph, it returns the director to noirish territory and features a familiar assortment of Miike lowlifes — drug smugglers and addicts, corrupt cops and cold-blooded killers, call girls and Chinese gangsters, sociopaths and screw-ups — all vying to survive anarchic gunfights, swordfights, exploding toys, flying cars and meth-induced delirium in Japan’s rotten underbelly.

In the film, Leo Katsuragi (Masataka Kubota) is an “unknown boxer with promise” who fights well in the ring, but has nothing to live for outside it. An abandoned orphan with a menial day job at a Chinese restaurant, he learns that he has a brain tumor and little time left. His doctor advises that he dedicate himself to helping someone else, and presto, he meets Monica (Sakurako Konishi), a sweet young meth addict haunted by the ghost of her abusive father, whose debts she has been forced into prostitution to pay off.

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Leo saves Monica from the mob and the ghost who haunts her.  ©2019 FIRST LOVE Production Committee

The star-crossed pair are unwittingly enmeshed in a drug-smuggling double-cross hatched by minor hoodlum Kase (a hilarious Shota Sometani) and dirty-dealing cop Otomo (Nao Omori), and are pursued through a single chaotic night by an array of eccentric characters, including, mostly memorably, a rampaging gangster’s girlfriend, Julie (a kickass Becky), who’s out for brutal revenge after he’s murdered; and a female assassin working for the Chinese Triads (Mami Fujioka), who laments that there’s no honor or humanity among thieves anymore.

Kubota joined Miike for the FCCJ Q&A session. It had been 10 years since the two had worked together, on the heralded 13 Assassins. In the intervening decade, the director continued to work at a blistering pace, averaging two film releases each year, including two more with British super-producer Jeremy Thomas, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011) and Blade of the Immortal (2017).

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A pair of old-style yakuza share a smoke.  ©2019 FIRST LOVE Production Committee

Miike had played a part in establishing Kubota’s career, having cast him as the lead in his 2008 TV series, Cellphone Investigator 7. After that, Kubota’s rise was meteoric. Nearly as prolific as his director, he starred in dozens of TV series and films of every genre, including hit franchises like Rurouni Kenshin (2012, 2014, 2020), High & Low (2016, 2017) and Tokyo Ghoul (2017, 2019), as well as in Prophecy (2015), 64 (2016), Thicker than Water (2018), Gintama 2 (2018), Diner (2019) and Fancy (2020).

So how did it feel for them to reunite on the set of First Love? Said Miike, “I’ve spent the past 10 years working constantly, and it seems like it’s been the blink of an eye. I don’t feel the terrifying passage of time unless I look in the mirror. Meanwhile, Mr. Kubota now looms over me in the industry. God can be so cruel.”

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©FCCJ

Chuckling appreciatively, his star recalled, “I was 19 when I first worked with Mr. Miike, and I really didn’t know left from right. Now that we’re working together again after 10 years, I feel like he’s softened somewhat. Even though he’s still wearing those sunglasses, he was spicier back then. He’s mellower now, and that’s made him more accessible and easier to talk to.”

Miike looked a little hangdog about this, but Kubota continued: “Once principle photography started, I realized what it is about a Miike set that makes all Japan’s leading actors want to work with him. When you experience other sets, it’s clear that Mr. Miike really is a grandmaster, and I realized how lucky I was to start my career on one of his sets.”

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©2019 FIRST LOVE Production Committee

The grandmaster was asked about Kubota’s costar, debuting actress Sakurako Konishi. “We auditioned unknowns,” he recalled, “and while acting technique and character motivation are important elements of standard auditions, for unknowns, it’s really about the presence they exude the moment they step through the door. With Ms. Konishi, I instantly sensed ‘That’s our lead.’ It’s like she was born to play this role.

“The same thing happened [in 2008], when we were casting the lead for Cellphone Investigator 7. When Mr. Kubota stepped through the door, I knew right away that he was the one.”

Kubota was also quick to praise the actress, telling the audience, “I still have a long way to go as an actor, but working with Ms. Konishi made me realize how much technique I’d accumulated through these years, the kind of technique that allows an actor to answer the question of what to do in a certain moment. Watching the way she approached the role, without a lot of technique, but with great agility, reminded me what it felt like 10 years ago. I just hope I can continue being a working actor 10 years from now, when Ms. Konishi is a big star.”

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©FCCJ

Kubota’s character in First Love is limited to fighting only with his fists, which proved to be effective. But Kubota admitted, “I was very envious of my costars, because it makes things so much easier to have a sword or a gun in your hands — you have ultimate power, don’t you? But in terms of physical preparation, I was the most prepared of all the cast. Since I play a boxer, I started training about a month before the shoot. I spent 2 hours a day in the gym every day, and I ate a lot of meat.”

Asked for his standout memories of the filmmaking process, Kubota recounted the many night shoots and the “car action scenes, with six of us crammed into a minivan, including Mr. Miike, with the car-action coordinator pushing the gas pedal. I kept nearly whacking my head on the windshield, so it’s something I’ll never forget.”

Miike was queried about working with Jeremy Thomas on his fourth project together. Said Miike, “He’s one of those rare producers who really understands the Japanese way of doing things and the Japanese approach. He left us to our own devices. During the editing process, he provided feedback. But ultimately, he left the decision-making to us. He’s a really rare producer in that respect, and I feel very lucky to work with him. I consider him a friend.”

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©Koichi Mori

But he noted, “The international version is cut slightly differently than the Japanese version; there are many things you have to take into consideration in Japan.”

There is a clever, colorful animated sequence in the film, and Miike was asked why it had been included. “Honestly speaking, there are a lot of restrictions on creative work in Japan,” he explained. “Japanese film has become [more conservative]. Most films are now ‘safe for viewing.’ One of the starkest differences between Japanese and international films is the risk factor, especially when it comes to action scenes. It’s not possible here anymore for young people to dream of being stunt performers, because the environment has changed. Most of the stunt people are veterans, over 60. So for a scene where you go over the edge like that, it does terrible things to your back and we couldn’t do it. But I was adamant about not cutting that scene from the script, and we ultimately made the decision to turn it into an animated sequence.”

Tom Mes, author of the two definitive books “Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike” and “Re-Agitator: A Decade of Writing on Takashi Miike,” was in the audience and mentioned that the auteur had spent the past several years directing an animated TV series directed squarely at the female tweener audience. “Do you see this film as a sort of male-focused rebound from that?” he asked. “Or is it a continuation?”

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The double-crossing yakuza Kase and dirty cop Otomo. ©2019 FIRST LOVE Production Committee

Said the director, “One reason we came up with the title First Love and the tagline ‘Farewell to violence,’ is because we were hopeful that certain audience members would be misled into seeing the film.” (Cue laughter.)

“As Tom said, I’ve been working on this TV series that airs weekly and is aimed at young female viewers. We’re in our 4th season. It’s about using the power of love, rather than violence, to [overcome obstacles in life], and that’s a message I truly take to heart.

“For this film, though, I wanted to depict the lives of these outlaws who lead very foolish lives. My hope was to cast a glimmer of hope into them. Most directors stick to one genre and chew over the same themes in all their work. That’s not the case with me. One thing leads to another, and I’ve been given the opportunity to make many films. For all the genre-crossing, I’m always trying to grab at the heart of the characters. Regardless of the size of the screen, all the characters are the same at their core. They’re struggling through the same conflicts and trying to find the same kind of happiness. It doesn’t make any difference what genre they’re in.”

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©FCCJ

Film critic Mark Schilling, wearing a mask (as were many in the room), noted that COVID-19 had effectively shut down the film industry in China, with many distributors moving their releases online in order to continue providing content. “How do you feel about the future of theatrical releases vs. streaming?” he asked.

Miike grew somber. “With the coronavirus, we’re in uncharted waters, and all of us are grappling with ways to cope with it. But I’m not opposed to bringing work to people in their own private spaces, so they can enjoy it without having physical interactions with other human beings. I admit I watch films online, and it’s interesting that watching films in your own personal space allows you to view them in a different light.

“But in my own experience, I feel it’s really important to spend time not only with a film’s characters but with other audience members in a theater. When you share a space with other viewers, even when the theater isn’t crowded, it makes for [a richer experience.] That’s essential for me, personally. Formats will continue to change, but I hope theatrical releases will continue forever.”

The Japan release of First Love is uncharacteristically late, coming after the film has screened at nearly 30 festivals overseas and opened in Europe, the US and elsewhere. Whether the delay was planned or imposed, it will be interesting to see whether Miike — and his “looming” star — can attract a larger female audience despite all the rambunctious, hyperviolent fun.

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©2019 FIRST LOVE Production Committee

Selected Media Exposure

Selected TV Exposure

  • 日本テレビ ZIP! SHOWBIZ 窪田正孝、再会した三池崇史監督は「鋭利なものが丸くなった」
  • TBS はやドキ! 窪田正孝・三池崇史監督が出席。「オレは10年で歳をとった、窪田くんはずいぶん出世した」
  • 日本テレビ Oha!4 NEWS LIVE 窪田が10年ぶりのタッグについて「緊張が解けたのか喋りやすくなった」
  • フジテレビ めざましテレビ 三池崇史監督は「窪田君は10年で出世した」と窪田正孝の活躍が嬉しい様子。 

BLOOD OF WOLVES


BLOOD OF WOLVES (Korou no Chi)


May 8, 2018
Q&A guests: Director Kazuya Shiraishi and novelist Yuko Yuzuki


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Shiraishi (left) and Yuzuki (right) recall the film's infamously gruesome pearl scene, which the director added himself.   ©Mance Thompson

Is The Blood of Wolves the first salvo in an electrifying new yakuza film franchise from Toei Studios? The film’s “planning producer,” Muneyuki Kii, dares to hope so. Its director, Kazuya Shiraishi, does too. And Yuko Yuzuki, the woman whose rough-and-tumble bestselling novel, Korou no Chi, reignited the studio’s  passion for jitsuroku eiga (actual record films), says, without hesitation, that Shiraishi’s the man if there are sequels in the offing.

Shiraishi and Yuzuki were at FCCJ to talk with the audience after our sneak peek of The Blood of Wolves. It marked the first time the Film Committee has hosted the author of the original novel on which a film is based, and the second time that Shiraishi has been on the dais. He was at FCCJ with four other directors to kick off the Nikkatsu Roman Porno reboot project in 2016, having directed Dawn of the Felines. It would go on to become the most successful of the five releases.

Shiraishi has explored territory similar to The Blood of Wolves in his previous high-octane actioners The Devil’s Path (2013) and Twisted Justice (2016), both of which won numerous awards. But he hits a career high with his new film. The boisterous, brutal cinematic bombshell made its world premiere in Udine, Italy at the Far East Film Festival in April and has already been booked for extensive international festival play. Should it prove to be a commercial hit at home, there’s every chance that Toei will move forward with Yuzuki’s just-released Kyouken no me (literally Eye of the Mad Dog), the second in a planned trilogy.

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The tone was surprisingly light through most of the Q&A, a relief after the film's unrelenting intensity.   ©FCCJ

After a decade of churning out popular ninkyo eiga (chivalry films) starring kimono-clad yakuza heroes played by the likes of Ken Takakura and Koji Tsuruta, Toei shifted gears in the early 1970s and introduced what came to be called jitsuroku eiga, focusing on the true stories of postwar yakuza in what film historian Jasper Sharp calls “a world of craven thugs and corrupt law enforcers… when vaunted traditional codes of behavior have been revealed as shams.” Kinji Fukusaku’s epic Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973), which was set in Hiroshima and starred Bunta Sugawara, was explosive, spawning four sequels, another three-part series and loads of imitators.

Toei makes no bones about its intention to recapture the invigorating jolt with which that classic franchise was met. “To make a film about the wild way of life of outlaws in the Showa period in the current Heisei era is an ambitious act,” read the production notes for The Blood of Wolves. “[It’s also] a challenge to Japan’s film industry, and to modern society itself.” 

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©FCCJ

The studio describes that challenge this way: “[Wolves] depicts men who traverse the boundaries between trust and betrayal, violence and desire, and justice and atrocity. In their harsh and brutal realm of existence, pride means everything. The striking catharsis and violence delivered by these men… is little seen in modern-day Japanese entertainment due to the highly restrictive nature of domestic free-to-air television and the current family-centric film environment.”

Yuzuki has admitted that if it weren’t for Fukasaku’s films, her novel would not exist: “It's a world that women can't enter even if they try, which is the very reason why it impressed me.” But responding to a question about the influence of the series on her writing, which has earned her multiple awards and widespread acclaim for her hardboiled style and meticulous attention to procedural details, she told the FCCJ audience, “The way I see the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series is, they were set in Hiroshima in the chaotic postwar period, and they weren’t so much about yakuza, but about these people and their will to survive. They were ferocious, and desperate to survive. They would kill each other, they would [really get down and dirty]. That was what really attracted me to the series. I wonder how many people in Japan today have such a passionate will to live?"

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© 2018 THE BLOOD OF WOLVES Production Committee

Added the director, “Needless to say, I was a huge fan of Toei’s jitsuroku eiga, but that era has ended. It’s the type of genre that you can’t make in Japan today, so I hadn’t really given any thought to venturing into that realm myself. In the early days when I was an assistant director, there were still V-Cinema (straight-to-video) yakuza films, but I never thought I would have the opportunity to make a film like this. When they came to me with Ms. Yuzuki’s novel, it was something I hadn’t even dreamt of. I was overjoyed, and also intimidated. But I also had a certain confidence that perhaps I was the only director who was able to take on this project.”

Shiraishi’s confidence is well earned. Not only does he guide his actors to awards-worthy performances, particularly Koji Yakusho, who is electrifying as a corrupt police detective, he also directs with dizzying visual intensity. Jitsuroku eiga fans will be pleased to note the stylistic similarities in The Blood of Wolves: Shiraishi deploys Fukasaku-esque freeze frames, overtitles, narration, newspaper images and docu-style shaky cam to impressive effect.

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 ©FCCJ

 “These days,” said Shiraishi, “the only yakuza films we have like Battles Without Honor and Humanity are by Takeshi Kitano, the Outrage series. Many members of the cast in this film were first-time yakuza. But they really, really seemed to enjoy it. They really put their heart and souls in it.” (With a cast that includes Yoko Maki, Takuma Otoo, Taro Suruga, Tomoya Nakamura, Junko Abe, Shido Nakamura, Yutaka Takenouchi, Kenichi Takito, Kenichi Yajima, Tomorowo Taguchi, Pierre Taki, Renji Ishibashi and Yosuke Eguchi, it’s hard to imagine which are neophytes.)

As for Yakusho, “When I was first starting out, I loved the yakuza roles he did in [V-cinema films] like Drug Connection and Osaka Gokudo Senso: Shinoidare. He was so wonderful in those roles that I wanted to bring back the yakuza Yakusho. Although he plays a detective, he’s a thug detective. But I think he’s fantastic in this film.”  

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Yakusho goes ballistic, brilliantly. © 2018 THE BLOOD OF WOLVES Production Committee

The Blood of Wolves immerses us in the dog-eat-dog world of Hiroshima at a time when internecine battles between rival yakuza clans could engulf the city at any moment. Detective Shogo Ogami (Yakusho) seems to be the only one holding the place together, using collusion, theft, torture, arson —whatever it takes — to keep the gangs “neutered.” The maverick detective, volatile and unpredictable, has no qualms about bending the law if it will help rein in the gang warfare. Favoring wide-collared polka-dot shirts and sunglasses, and ravenous like the wolf of his name, Ogami is dogged by rumors that he’s in cahoots with the mob.

After a recent transfer from headquarters, rookie cop Shuichi Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka) has had just about enough of his new partner’s balls-out behavior. “What you’re doing is insane, Ogami! Police officers are supposed to uphold justice,” he yells in exasperation. “You wanna hear my idea of justice?” responds Ogami. “I ain’t got one.” But he later confesses he feels “like an acrobat on a tightrope: lean too far to the gangster side or the cop side, and you fall.” 

Hioka secretly records and writes copious notes on his partner’s shockingly unorthodox methods as they investigate the disappearance of a finance company employee, which seems to have kicked off the latest conflict. Scrambling to retain his own sense of honor and humanity (codes that once governed both cops and criminals), Hioka gradually finds himself in over his head, swept up by Ogami’s maelstrom of raw brutality, scrambling to halt the eye-for-an-eye clan vengeance. But just as Hioka is ready to present his evidence to Internal Affairs, the rogue detective disappears and the hounds of hell are unleashed… 

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Matsuzaka has an Ogami-like moment. © 2018 THE BLOOD OF WOLVES Production Committee

Noting that the film is “very exciting, but also very confusing” (a fair criticism, considering the intricately woven plot strands, complicated relationships between gangs, enormous cast of characters who appear fleetingly, and the frequent necessity for multiple English titles on screen at once) one FCCJ audience member asked for some elucidation of the film’s themes. Responded Shiraishi, “One very big theme is the notion of personal justice. This takes place in 1988, the final year of the Showa era, and these days we still speak of the ‘Showa Male.’ It was an era of many historical upheavals, such as World War II. The number of people who lived during those times has dwindled, and their way of life is also disappearing. I wanted to capture the Showa Male and the Showa way of life in this film.”

Said Yuzuki, “What I wanted to depict in the original novel was a universal theme: what human beings are like and how they live. Life, with all its trials and tribulations, still compels us to survive. It’s about survival.”  

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©Koichi Mori

Another journalist sought clarification: do they think that survival is more difficult in 2018 than it was in 1988? “I think it’s rather more difficult to get by in 2018,” said Shiraishi, “because we’re not allowed to express ourselves or speak our minds. It’s a little more suffocating now than it was in 1988. But that was the time just before the Anti-Organized Crime Law kicked in, so for the yakuza, it was a time when it became increasingly difficult to do business and get by. But it was a time when the yakuza were active, and had more power than the police. So it’s easier to depict the life-and-death [struggle] during that period.”

Explained Yuzuki, “I set the story in Showa 63 [1988] because there were still various ties between the yakuza and the police. There was a gray zone, so I could depict the kinds of clashes and connections they had. Right now, I think everything is much more black and white. So it makes the era of the story easier to depict. Going back to the theme of pain and suffering we encounter in life, those are timeless things. Because of various economic factors and war, they haven’t changed in 20 years. Even if this story is set in the late 1980s, the audience can still relate.”

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 ©FCCJ

Pointing out that in Battles Without Honor and Humanity, Hiroshima’s position as the site of the atomic bombing “loomed large,” one audience member inquired what the writer and director thought it represented in The Blood of Wolves. Responded Yuzuki, “Before I started writing the book, I went to Hiroshima to do some research. What really struck me was the power of the Hiroshima dialect. It’s very powerful. While I was in town, I went to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and saw the absolute destruction that was wrought on Hiroshima. When I left the museum, the was sun shining and people were walking along the street, smiling and laughing, and it struck me how much determination it took to get us here, to this age. And I decided that I had to set the novel there, and include the Hiroshima dialect.”

Shiraishi smiled. “I remember watching the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series when I was a teen, and I assumed all yakuza spoke in the Hiroshima dialect. When the screenplay was written and we showed it to all our actors, I didn’t have to explain, they all understood what we wanted to do. I think that’s due to the wonderful films that Toei made in the past; they’ve been a guiding light for us. Under the influence of all those films, I thought Hiroshima must be filled with yakuza, but at the risk of angering Hiroshima citizens, I’ll just say that I found it to be a wonderful town.” 

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 ©FCCJ

 Asked whether she felt her gender had “delivered a revitalizing jolt to the genre,” as has been widely hyped, Yuzuki said, “As a writer, I’m not all that aware of gender. But what I often find gender-specific in Japan is the way that [friendships are formed.] Women seek friends who share the same values, while men, even if their values are 90% different, if there’s one thing that they can share, they can see eye to eye. That’s what I find really appealing about the male world. That’s the kind of relationship I wanted to depict, and I wanted to make the male characters as masculine as possible.”

Shiraishi’s Twisted Justice screenwriter, Junya Ikegami, adapted Yuzuki’s book for the film, and the author admitted, “There were a few scenes that the director played around with. One scene was the pearl scene, which wasn’t in the novel. Also, the line that [actor] Renji Ishibashi says, ‘Coinkydoink, coincidence, cli—’ [she stops before uttering the full, potentially offensive, word], was not included in the novel. I really thought the director outdid me on those types of things.” She laughed, “I’ll try harder next time.” 

Kazuya Shiraishi-2Mance Thompson  Kazuya Shiraishi-1Mance Thompson
 ©Mance Thompson

Shiraishi said, “I mentioned that there are very few yakuza films out there besides the Outrage series, and those films were hits. Without Ms. Yuzuki writing the novel, there wasn’t much opportunity for Toei to venture back into the yakuza genre. If this film becomes a hit, hopefully, if Ms. Yuzuki wants me to direct the sequel, I’d be more than happy to take on that role.” Here, Yuzuki interjected, “Soshiso ai!” a passionate expression that we’ll interpret to mean “You know I would!” 

Shiraishi continued, “The [cigarette] lighter that ultimately went to Tori Matsuzaka in the film — he actually took that home with him. He said, ‘I’m gonna keep this until the next time we meet.’ So if there’s another project with this series, I would be more than happy to take up the challenge.”

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 ©FCCJ



blood of wolves  2018 THE BLOOD OF WOLVES Production Committee
© 2018 THE BLOOD OF WOLVES Production Committee 

Selected Media Exposure

KEN AND KAZU


KEN AND KAZU (Ken to Kazu)


 July 20, 2016
Q&A guests: Director Hiroshi Shoji and stars Shinsuke Kato and Katsuya Maiguma


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                      Maiguma (Kazu), Kato (Ken) and writer-director Shoji were as light as the film is dark.              ©Koichi Mori

Three handsome young men in black suits descended upon FCCJ for the sneak preview screening of Ken and Kazu, looking for all the world like the grown-up yakuza versions of the street punks in the film. But then they smiled and laughed, and it was clear that they were nothing at all like the lowlifes populating the extraordinarily beautiful, brutal and moving feature debut of Hiroshi Shoji.

By rights, the film should provide a major bounce on the trio’s springboard to success, and the suits were in honor of their first joint public appearance since October last year, when Ken and Kazu won the Best Picture Award in the Japanese Cinema Splash section at the 2015 Tokyo International Film Festival.

In the months since, the film has been traveling the international festival scene, from Shanghai to Edinburgh to Taiwan to Germany to New York and Korea, earning acclaim for its breathtaking cinematography and the bravura acting chemistry of its two leads, as well as the Shakespearean depths of its tragic tale.

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Top: Shoji (©Koichi Mori), Left: Maiguma (©FCCJ),  Right: Kato (©Koichi Mori)

As is often the case with unknown filmmakers, however, Shoji and his up-and-coming stars have not had the privilege of accompanying Ken and Kazu on every stop. Thus, the reunion at FCCJ provided a rare opportunity to share their filmmaking adventures with an appreciative international audience.

Based on the writer-director’s award-winning 2011 short of the same name, and with Shinsuke Kato and Katsuya Maiguma in place again as the titular characters, the film wastes no time in luring us into its thoroughly realistic Japanese underworld: Ken and Kazu are small-time dealers of methamphetamines operating out of an auto-repair shop that’s mostly a front for money laundering by a local yakuza boss (Haruki Takano) who was Ken’s childhood classmate.

They’re in it only for the money: Ken needs it to start a new life with his pregnant girlfriend, Saki (Shuna Iijima), and Kazu needs it so he can put his mother, suffering from dementia, into a care home. Ken is level-headed, responsible, watchful; but he is forced to go along when Kazu — all glares and threats, a wounded tough guy with a dark secret — decides to up the ante for a bigger piece of the action. They start working for a rival gang, but inevitably, the two friends are driven into a desperate double-cross.

Despite working on a shoestring budget, Shoji delivers one of the most powerful character studies in recent memory. Ken and Kazu is evermore intense and thrilling as it hurtles inexorably to its fateful climax, anchored by performances of heartbreaking tenderness and explosive anger. The film’s accomplishments are partially due to the two-and-a-half years the director spent meticulously whittling it down from 141 minutes to a tight 96 minutes; but also to the incredible casting.

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                          Ken and Kazu break in a new member of the gang.     ©KenToKazu_Movie

It is, as one FCCJ audience member put it, “just stellar, all down the line. Everybody was just great. How did you do the casting?”

Explaining that he had gone to Tokyo Film Center College of Arts with Maiguma (who also graduated from the directing course, but took up acting afterward), Shoji replied: “We’ve been friends for over 10 years now, and after he played the same character [Kazu] in the short film, of course I had him play it in the feature. As for the role of Ken, Kato-san actually auditioned for [the short film version] online. After we’d selected him, I then started molding the characters around them. That’s why I think the characters suit the actors, and why we could get a realistic depiction of the characters.”

The emcee interjected, “So these two are actually violent drug dealers?” “Yes,” laughed Kato. “We were beating each other up in the greenroom while you were all watching the film.”

Shoji discussed the process of rehearsal and script revision after the actors had been cast. “These two are really different types of actors, so we spent about 3 weeks developing the characters and script together, and we changed just about everything from my original script. “No, we didn’t!” said Kato. “Shoji-san is actually really stubborn — we didn’t really veer much from the original script at all.”

Shoji km-7

maiguma km-21   kato km-15
                                                                                                                                                                             ©Koichi Mori

“What’s the key to Ken and Kazu’s relationship?” asked another interlocutor. “So much of their backstory was left unexplained, and I wondered what had brought them so close together.” Said Maiguma, “Maybe this is different from what the director had in mind, but my own take on the characters is that they’re like brothers. You can’t explain a sibling relationship, but it’s there and you just feel it.” Added Kato, “With friends that you’re always around, there aren’t always clear reasons why you became friends to begin with. But I think Ken and Kazu complement each other, they need each other, they wouldn’t be able to complete anything without relying on each other.”

Another audience member commented on the setting. “This doesn’t look like the Japan that we usually see. These characters, did you live near people like that and know them personally?” Shoji responded, “I shot in the town where I’m living, Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture, and I think I was able to capture the nuances of the people and the area because I’m living there.”

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Ken and Kazu show just how tough they can be during the photo call. 
©
Koichi Mori

Yet the feeling persisted that Shoji himself couldn’t possibly be part of that milieu. Shoji sidestepped the suggestion that the film fits snugly in the Japanese yakuza genre, noting that he’d been a huge fan of Hollywood and Korean films for years. “They say that directors always put a lot of themselves in their first film,” he said. “That’s true in my case. I often think about friendship, rivalry, making choices. I think about these issues a lot, and that’s why I wanted to make a film addressing them.” He later stressed that his main focus could be seen in the film’s final minutes, and the actions of Ken: “I think it all comes down to the moments in life when you do something for someone else, selflessly, and that’s one of the important messages.”

In my introduction before the screening, I had evoked Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, the 1973 work that shares some parallels with Ken and Kazu, not only in style and character, but in career timing. That little film was made when Scorsese was still relatively unknown, and the two lowlife pals were played by relatively unknown actors: Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro. Mean Streets launched all three into the firmament, of course; only time will tell if Ken and Kazu does the same.

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Japan's answer to the young De Niro and Keitel? Or is Kato Japan's Al Pacino?  ©Koichi Mori

 But this is not your usual Japanese indie, at least by today’s standards. Proof positive: UK-based distributor Third Window Films is handling international sales for the film, which are reportedly brisk. The company’s CEO, Adam Torel, recently went on record, joining many other international critics in lambasting the current crop of Japanese releases. Among their complaints: actors either overact or do nothing at all, directors favor rambling longueurs over story- and character-building arcs, and bargain-basement production values cripple the impact.

There’s a long way to go before the Japanese industry can recapture its once-vaunted position in the global cinema firmament, but Ken and Kazu is a reminder that talent will out.

poster km-30
                                                                                                                              ©Koichi Mori

 

KK poster
                                                      ©KenToKazu_Movie

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