Member Login

Member Login

Username
Password *

FC HEADER

Karen Severns

Karen Severns

SOIRÉE


 August 19, 2020
Q&A guests: Director 
Bunji Sotoyama and stars Nijiro Murakami and Haruka Imou


FCCJ SoireeFCCJ-13-

Director Bunji Sotoyama and stars Nijiro Murakami and Haruka Imou. ©FCCJ

In the future, Bunji Sotoyama’s visually and emotionally rewarding Soirée may be remembered as a film of important firsts. The first release of the freshly minted production company Shinsekai, it also marks the cultural moment when we all discovered Haruka Imou.

But for now, still on the cusp of stardom, it was not Ms. Imou’s presence that brought a huge contingent of still photographers and nine TV cameras to the Q&A session following our screening — it was the film’s producers, Kosuke Toyohara and Kyoko Koizumi, two of Japan’s most popular and prolific actors. 

FCCJ SoireeFCCJ-9
Citing the careers of John Cassavetes, Clint Eastwood, Jodie Foster and Juzo Itami,
producer KosukeToyohara reassured journalists that he would continue to act,
as well as produce and direct. 
©FCCJ

Gamely agreeing to comment briefly about the genesis of the project — but humbly standing off to the side of the stage as he did so — Toyohara recalled, “Two years ago, we met with Mr. Sotoyama about making a film together in Wakayama, and [decided to] establish a company together, Shinsekai (‘new world’). We wanted to protect the uniqueness [of his script] and the freedom of the filmmaking. This wasn’t only because it was our first project as a production company, but because we felt these are values that should be highly prized in filmmaking, and in culture in general. We also wanted to protect Mr. Sotoyama’s artistry without diluting the [weightiness] of the project.”

The audience immediately understood that Toyohara was referring to the film’s backdrop of power and sexual abuse, issues that have begun popping up more frequently in Japanese narrative films, but have rarely been handled with the same level of empathy and discernment that they are in Soirée

FCCJ SoireeFCCJ-3
©
Koichi Mori

Sotoyama, who reportedly spent some 10 months working on the script with the producers, recalled, “They encouraged me to question exactly what I wanted to say with my work, and finally, we were able to arrive on the same page. One message I wanted to make clear is that we are not born to be hurt. That leads to the theme of Japan’s unforgiving, non-inclusive society, which is forcing people to suffocate. Unfortunately, I don’t have any answers, but I think what I can do as a filmmaker is to continue making films about this.”

The two young protagonists of Soirée do indeed seem to be slowly suffocating. Sharing attributes with many of today’s disaffected youth, they are immeasurably lonely, alienated, unable to overcome their crippling self-doubt. Shota (Nijiro Murakami, Still the Water, Destruction Babies, The Gun) has come to Tokyo to pursue his dreams of being an actor, but when we first meet him, he is instead skimming an innocent victim in an “ore-ore” fiscal scam. He may be a skillful conman, but in his acting class, he’s also the target of a cruel verbal outburst from the director.

Soiree2020 SOIREE Film Partners
©2020 SOIRÉE Film Partners

When Shota’s drama group journeys to a remote seaside town in Wakayama, where they will hold workshops with the inhabitants of a senior citizens’ home, we learn that Shota is from the area himself, but that he has essentially severed ties with his family. At the Sakura Garden senior facility, he meets the forlorn Takara (Haruka Imou, immediately magnetic in her first leading role).

Shota is tasked with bringing her along to the local summer festival, and as he arrives to pick her up, so too does the man most responsible for crushing her spirit. After a violent scuffle, Shota grabs Takara by the hand and they run. Their escape is misconstrued, and their unplanned journey takes on a more urgent tone. But as it continues, the pair are put to the test physically, emotionally, financially. “God puts us through trials, but always gives us a way out,” Shota reassures Takura. As they search for that way, they encounter and are helped by caring souls; but until they’ve faced up to their own pasts, the journey cannot end well.

ride2020 SOIREE Film Partners
©2020 SOIRÉE Film Partners

Beautifully lensed, with performances of rare delicacy and naturalness, Soirée marks a real departure for the director, who has previously demonstrated an unusual commitment to depicting the older generation. His award-winning short On This Side (2010) and his feature debut, A Sparkle of Life (2013), focused only on characters of a certain age. Even the short that brought Murakami and Sotoyama together for the first time in 2017, Harunareya, costarred the veteran Kazuko Yoshiyuki and foregrounded dementia.

“I’ve been depicting the elderly in my films for the past 10 years,” Sotoyama explained. “The elderly taking care of the elderly, people dying isolated and lonely deaths — it’s these issues that Japanese have not faced head on, which is why I want to continue depicting them. I want to draw the audience’s attention to them, to give voice to the voiceless. 

FCCJ SoireeKoichi Mori-1
The film's distributors brought in special dividers to reduce the Covid-19 risk. ©Koichi Mori

“This isn't because of a particular experience or family situation. My intention is to depict the issues confronting society in Japan, and one of those is aging and the way the elderly are suffocating. That’s a recurring theme in my work. So those who are familiar with it might be surprised that I’m telling this story about young people and their escape from reality. But nowadays, I think it’s not only the elderly who are suffocating, it’s also young people. I thought the time was ripe to focus on the younger generation as well.”

He was inspired to write the script, Sotoyama explained, after a visit to Wakayama Prefecture, south of Nara, where he’d been given an opportunity to set a film. “When I first visited, I discovered that the legend of Anchin and Kiyohime, which you see the characters enact in the film, is part of the town’s history and has been told [for generations]. I wanted to figure out a way to tell a contemporary story that connects to that.” (The legend is the subject of the acting troupe’s training with the seniors, and is also incorporated into one of the film’s most enchanting scenes of magic realism.)

run2020 SOIREE Film Partners
©2020 SOIRÉE Film Partners

Lauded for his casting decisions, the director was asked how he had made the selection. “We auditioned over 100 actors for Takara,” he responded, “and what ultimately convinced us to go with Ms. Imou was that she exhibited the fragility and ephemeralness of the character, as well as a strong life force. She had the right balance.

“It’s a story about a girl who’s gone through a very rough childhood and as the narrative progresses over the course of the film, we see her regain her life force, little by little. That’s what we wanted to bring to the screen, and that’s why we needed her.

FCCJ SoireeFCCJ-2   FCCJ SoireeFCCJ-7
Imou and Murakami. ©FCCJ

“I first worked with Mr. Murakami on the short film Harunareya,” he continued. “He was still a teen at the time, and I found him to be a very interesting artist. Emotionally, he has this universality to him, but he also has a really contemporary aura, and I felt he could embody the dilemmas of contemporary youth.”

Commending them on their “sensitive, multifaceted portrayals” of characters dealing with abuse, a film historian asked the actors how they had prepared for the roles. Said Murakami, “Allow me to answer first, although in terms of the situation that both characters are facing, Ms. Imou’s character is the more cornered of the two. She has much more serious issues to deal with.

looking back2020 SOIREE Film Partners
©2020 SOIRÉE Film Partners

“I think my character is more universal, in a way. He’s a simple, straightforward young guy who’s grappling with issues like How far can I go with my [limited] talent? What am I going to do? How am I going to achieve my dreams? He’s come all the way from Wakayama to Tokyo to become a star, but he’s almost on the brink of giving up. Yet through this relationship with Takara he’s given the chance to be, or to act as, a hero.

“It’s about the conflicts that Shota goes through and the walls he has to [tear down],” he elaborated. “There are several important themes: first of all, you have to work hard and study hard. And then, you have to learn how to discern between people who are just hard on you and those who are hard on you but love you. Is it coming from a place of love? Those are some of the things the role made me think about.”

FCCJ SoireeFCCJ-10   FCCJ SoireeFCCJ-14
©FCCJ

Said Imou, “It was challenging to prepare for my role because I hadn’t gone through such an experience, yet I needed to confront it head on [in order to portray it with the right sensitivity.] It wasn’t enough to just presume what Takara must’ve gone through psychologically, I really had to live the character, to walk in her path.

“They say that you can’t choose your parents, but it’s a fact that you can choose your own path. You can stand on your own two feet. You can stand up and put yourself back together, no matter how many times you topple over. That’s what I wanted to depict through this character. And through her, I was able to experience how strong and utterly cool a woman can be."

Demonstrating a media savvy that will stand her in good stead as her career takes off, Imou also noted, “I was able to work on this project with wonderful producers who are extremely active as actors themselves. They kindly gave me a platform where I could release my creativity and express myself, and it’s been a really rewarding experience. I’m also grateful that I had this opportunity to create a singular role together with the director, my castmates and the crew. I’m a film lover myself, and I hope to continue working as an actress for the rest of my life. I also hope Soirée gives people a bit of optimism about this unforgiving, non-inclusive society.” 

FCCJ SoireeFCCJ-4
©
Koichi Mori

The director, too, is ready for his closeup. Taking a question about the film’s French title, he made it really matter: “In Japan, ‘soirée’ equates to the evening presentation of a stage production,” he explained. “However, the film’s also about the hours between dusk and dawn, and ‘soirée’ speaks to the themes we’re trying to depict. It also alludes to the fact that we are our own life’s [leading] character. And in this era of Covid-19, I think it can also be seen in terms of how all of us are waiting for the dawn to break, for the light at the end of the tunnel.”

An exciting international premiere will be announced very soon, kicking off what is sure to be an abundance of overseas festival appearances.

Soiree poster2020 SOIREE Film Partners
©2020 SOIRÉE Film Partners

Selected Media Exposure


KUSHINA, WHAT WILL YOU BE (Kushina)


 July 15, 2020
Q&A guests: Director 
Moët Hayami, actors Yayoi Inamoto and Miyuki Ono


Kushina posterFCCJ-14
Writer-director Moët Hayami (right) with her stars, Yayoi Inamoto (left), and Miyuki Ono. ©FCCJ

In these times of self-isolation and social distancing, a film like Kushina, what will you be feels almost like allegory.

From our mid-2020 vantage point, it's hard to resist reading it as a cautionary tale about the fragility of our cultural ecosystems, the ease with which interlopers can rend the social fabric, and the real/imagined threats that external forces pose to even the most tightknit of communities.

The enigmatic first feature of Moët Hayami, Kushina is set in a remote matriarchal utopia. Hidden deep in the forested mountains of Japan, cloaked in almost otherworldly scenery, its residents live off the grid among the near-ruins of what might be a long-vanished civilization, with only the basic necessities and clothing that appears nearly feudal.

Kushina Kader  ATELIER KUSHINA
© ATELIER KUSHINA

Fourteen-year-old Kushina (Ikumi Kader) is the youngest inhabitant of this village of women, born and raised here, while others had come intent on suicide but stayed on to live with like-minded souls. The female sanctuary was founded by fierce matriarch Onikuma (Miyuki Ono), who had fled modern “civilization” with her daughter Kagu (Tomona Hirota) when she was 14 and had become pregnant with Kushina.

Onikuma hasn’t completely cut ties with the outside world — she makes long, dangerous trips to the city to trade the cannabis the women cultivate for food and other provisions. But she will do anything to protect the isolation of the colony. And soon, she will have to.

Kushina two  ATELIER KUSHINA
Onikuma and Kushina. © ATELIER KUSHINA

The peaceful existence is upended by the arrival of anthropologist Soko (Yayoi Inamoto) and her male assistant Keita (Suguru Onuma), who have been searching for the village for some time. “Human beauty develops distinctively in isolated communities,” Soko had told him, and she now has her chance to document the proof. She finds herself enchanted with Kushina’s innocence and her curiosity about what lies beyond the woods, and she unwittingly crosses the line, altering the women’s lives forever.

Kushina Inamoto  ATELIER KUSHINA
Soko documents her find. ©
ATELIER KUSHINA

Appearing with two of her lead actresses for the Q&A session after the screening of her film, the director was asked what had compelled her to create such an unusual world. “The seed of the story was actually not this community of women living in the forest,” admitted Hayami. “The seed was that I wanted to create a mother-daughter story — it all sprang from there. I also imagined that if you’re very young and you get pregnant in Japan, it must be really suffocating.

Kushina HayamiFCCJ-10
Hayami earned immediate acclaim for her debut feature. ©FCCJ

“That led me to imagine what would happen if a woman got pregnant, ran away to the forest to commit suicide, and decided instead to stay. As we all know, there are these jukai, or seas of trees (aka suicide forests) in which there’s no way out, once you go in. But I imagined if a woman went in and decided to stay, she might build a community, whereas a man would probably drift away. That’s how I started creating the characters and the story.”

Hayami admitted that she had been repeatedly cautioned against shooting too much and for too long, considering the limited budget and her inexperience. When the location was finally decided on —somewhere in Yamanashi Prefecture that is difficult to find even by GPS (a situation echoed in the film) — the director had even more reason to limit the shoot. She would eventually do her own production and costume design, as well as spending 2 years on editing the film.

Kushina OnoKoichi Mori-1
Ono marks her return to the screen with an indelible role. ©Koichi Mori

Magnificently shot (by Ryo Muramatsu, the director’s husband), Kushina had its world premiere at the Osaka Asian Film Festival in 2018, where it won the Japan Cuts Award, taking its director and stars to New York City for a widely heralded screening. And yet, Hayami ultimately decided against releasing it in Japan.

Believers in kismet might imagine that distribution was delayed so it could coincide with the coronavirus pandemic 2 years later, thus lending the film a newfound resonance. The truth is nearly as remarkable.

Kushina InamotoKoichi Mori-7
Popular TV actress Inamoto makes her film debut in Kushina. ©Koichi Mori

“I had the opportunity to screen the film at several film festivals in 2018, and I was approached about distributing it,” recalled Hayami. “However, when my mother read a few of the interviews I did, she seemed shocked and hurt at what I’d said. I realized that I’d put her in an unpleasant position. She told me she now recognized she had caused me a lot of pain and perhaps she’d made a mistake in the way she’d raised me.

“Since it wasn’t my intention to depict that in the film, I decided to let it lie a little bit while I grappled with how to release it commercially. It took me 2 years, during which I worked on other projects. I wanted my mother to understand my intentions, and in order to move forward with my next project, I needed to see this one released first.”

Kushina threeKoichi Mori
©Koichi Mori

An audience member asked, “Did your mother intuit this from watching the film, or was it only when you started doing press for the film? I’m curious because writers often have the problem that family members read themselves into their characters, even when they aren’t meant to.”

Responded Hayami, “My mother saw the movie before reading the interviews and said she didn’t understand what it was about (laughter). Then she read the interviews and said it was quite shocking to discover that it was about herself. So she revisited the film, and told me ‘I still didn’t understand.’ (more laughter) But my older sister watched the film and burst into tears, so I could see that we were on the same page.”

Kushina InamotoFCCJ-8   Kushina OnoFCCJ-5
©FCCJ

If Hayami saw herself as Kushina, then it’s arguable that the little girl’s grandmother in the film, Onikuma, is her mother’s stand-in. Miyuki Ono plays the character with gravitas and overprotective intensity, reminding us how much she’s been missed. Ono had made her film debut in 1979 opposite the late, great Bunta Sugawara, and gone on to appear in a range of distinctive works, including Ridley Scott’s Black Rain (1989).

But as she told the audience, “I’d been away from film for 16 years when we shot Kushina (in 2016), since I had become a mother myself. During that time I also became a regular audience member. Maybe because I was watching more, I started finding an increasing number of Japanese films that were really interesting. I wanted to work with this new generation of talented filmmakers, and that was the main impetus for me to sign on to this project.

Hayami was asked whether the film’s haunting poster image — depicting Kushina in the forest, curled up like a cat as she listens again and again to a song on her fading Walkman cassette player — might have been the inciting image for the script. But the director said she had instead seen the image of a woman returning home from somewhere far away. (We hear Kushina’s song only after the credits have rolled, when Doris Day’s “Que Sera Sera” fills the soundtrack. It turns out that this was a song that deeply connected Hayami and her mother, and thus seems to be a covert message of hope, and of forgiveness.)

Kushina main Kader  ATELIER KUSHINA
© ATELIER KUSHINA

TV tarento Yayoi Inamoto, who made her film debut playing the anthropologist in the film, was asked whether she imagines Kushina is thankful that her character has drawn her into the real world, away from the isolated life she’s led. Responded Inamoto, “I guess we need to have a sequel to know [for sure], but as the mother of 3 children myself, I have to say that if one of them were taken away like that, it would be unthinkable to me. Of course, given the kind of environment that this little girl was brought up in, there’s no way of knowing.”

When Hayami was lauded for her costume design, particularly the choice to color-code characters, Hayami explained, “Since their thoughts and sentiments are quite ambiguous in the story, I thought that it was important to understand what each character’s function was, and to use clear color themes. I indicated that in the screenplay, but there was also a lot of discussion with my crew. And Ms. Ono kindly brought some of her own clothes, so we mixed and matched them."

Said Ono (whose defining color is midnight blue), “My character changes clothes (to more modern garb) when she goes into town so she can more easily blend in. But all the costumes and kimono existed [in some form or another]; none of them were created from scratch. I think that brings a level of reality to the community, because if women came together to live in the forest, they would probably be wearing clothing like this, not buying new pieces.”

Kushina HayamiFCCJ-12
©FCCJ

She continued, “When I was doing an interview with a male journalist earlier tonight, he mentioned perhaps he should go visit his mother. This is not a didactic film — it is about the power and the strength and the beauty of female characters. In that sense, you can call it a fantasy that is infused with reality.

“When I was working as an actress 20 years ago, there weren't many films that depicted females with a sense of agency or intention. They were always these fragile beings that men had to protect. I was in my 20s and 30s at the time, and I remember feeling very uneasy about being pigeonholed into that kind of stereotype.

KushinaKoichi Mori01  Kushina InamotoFCCJ-9
©Koichi Mori (left),
©FCCJ (right)

“This film, on the other hand, allows you to see the power that females have, how they raise their children, what it truly means to love and the depth of emotions that come with that. I think it must be a revelation for male audiences of the younger generation. It’s a way of seeing women through new eyes. These are not fragile, outdated characters. This is not to say that traditional women should be looked down upon, but rather, that the way they’ve been depicted [is wrong], and that goes for films from many countries around the world.”

Inamoto concurred. “I hope audiences consider the genesis of the project as a mother-daughter story, but I imagine it must be very interesting to view the story as a man,” she said. “After all, it [includes] a man going into a village where men are not allowed. And it’s also about an outsider who goes into a community intending no harm at all but who creates a kind of rupture in that society, in the end. I guess that alludes to the many forms of affection that exist, which might be another interesting way of seeing the story.”

Kushina HayamiKoichi Mori
©
Koichi Mori

Finally, speaking rather cryptically (unless one has been apprised of the situation with her mother), Moët Hayami told the audience, “We have to make many decisions throughout the course of our lives, and a lot of them are driven by love. I’d like the audience to think about the fact that when you give love to someone, you don’t always know that it is being received.

“We were working on a very low budget, but I love fantasy films. I don’t think there are many prominent Japanese films that are [like the fantasies being made overseas], and this is my own attempt at making one.”

Kushina poster  ATELIER KUSHINA
© ATELIER KUSHINA

Selected Media Exposure

AN EVENING WITH VETERAN FILM CRITIC MARK SCHILLING


AN EVENING WITH VETERAN FILM CRITIC MARK SCHILLING


 June 23, 2020
Q&A guest: Mark Schilling


Tony TakitaniKoichi Mori-3
Schilling, right, with Sachiko Ichikawa, widow of Jun Ichikawa, and Tony Takitani DP Taishi Hirokawa. ©Koichi Mori

Three long months after our last event, the Film Committee cautiously emerged from Covid-19 lockdown to host an intimate conversation with veteran film critic, festival advisor and cycling enthusiast Mark Schilling.

The small-town Ohio boy is now the world’s leading voice on Japanese film, with a catbird seat as a critic for the Japan Times since 1989. He has been the local correspondent since 1990 for Screen International and now Variety, is a cultural reporter for a wide range of international publications, and has authored six books on Japan, including the recently published “Art, Cult and Commerce: Japanese Cinema Since 2000.”

When we first approached him about joining us on the FCCJ dais, we suggested also screening a film of his choice. His immediate response had been, “something by Jun Ichikawa” — his favorite Japanese filmmaker, who had died in 2008 at the age of 59. With the assistance of Ichikawa's widow, Sachiko, we were able to treat the audience to a very special screening of the director’s 2004 masterpiece Tony Takitani, based on a Haruki Murakami short story. A delicate, haunting film shot in luminous near-monochrome, it beautifully renders the spiritual isolation of its eponymous protagonist, as well as of modern Japan.

Tony Takitani  2005 WILCO Co. Ltd
© 2005 WILCO Co., Ltd

Introducing the screening, Sachiko Ichikawa shared a statement her husband wrote after he’d finished the film, highlighting his “attempt to answer demands brought about by Murakami’s literary world, which may be solid but is nonetheless floating a few centimeters off reality’s ground;” and of his own conviction that the film version should have “shots comprised of blank spaces like Edward Hopper’s paintings.”

The director’s longtime collaborator, acclaimed photographer Taishi Hirokawa, the award-winning cinematographer of Tony Takitani, told the audience Ichikawa wanted the film to feel as if “viewers were turning the pages as they read the story,” resulting in the camera’s subtle, ceaseless movements from left to right. He also recalled how they had had just two weeks to shoot, and had built all the sets in the open air on a hillside near Yokohama, despite the imminent typhoon season. “But Ichikawa was always lucky,” he said. “The rains skipped us.”

Settling in for a long, genial chat after the screening, Schilling was asked why Jun Ichikawa is so important to him. “I didn’t know much about him when I first started reviewing in 1989,” he admitted, “so for me, the discovery was Dying at a Hospital [1993]. I went into the screening cold and I was totally blown away. You’re watching patients who are all being treated for cancer… and you also see people outside the hospital, doing ordinary things. That combination, of people who are going to die and people who are very much alive — the contrast just hit me so hard.

Tony TakitaniKoichi Mori-2
Hirokawa discusses building the open-air sets. ©
Koichi Mori

“I ended up showing it at Udine (Far East Film Festival, where he curated the first international spotlight on Ichikawa’s work in 1994), and believe me, the last 10-15 minutes, everyone in the audience was [sobbing]. I couldn’t stop crying myself, and afterward, the director said, ‘I feel kind of sorry — I just make films that make people cry.’

“I ended up seeing everything he made after that, and he became my touchstone. This is why I’m doing this. At the time, there were up-and-coming directors getting attention, like (Takeshi) Kitano, (Hirokazu) Kore-eda and later (Kiyoshi) Kurosawa and (Naomi) Kawase. It was great for them, but I thought, ‘Wait a minute, Ichikawa should be up there with them.’ He wasn’t being ignored in Japan, but I thought he could take a step up, beyond Japan, and I tried to do what I could. I thought, ‘This is my mission, to make his films better known.’”

Tony TakitaniFCCJ-2
©FCCJ

Asked why had he selected Tony Takitani to screen at FCCJ, when it was almost too good at making the audience feel “extremely isolated and lonely,” Schilling responded, “It’s the time we’re living in now, isn’t it? Mrs. Ichikawa shared her husband’s thoughts about Edward Hopper, who’s become the artist of the coronavirus era. When I first saw it, I remember thinking that maybe it wasn’t cinematic enough. But I watched it again, and everything fits together the way Ichikawa intended it to: the images, the music, the acting. For me, it builds up to that moment when Tony’s wife is gone and he’s alone in her closet, a huge room, with all her clothes. I’ve had that experience in my own life. Someone dies, you go in and see their things the way they left them for the last time. And you never forget that. You never forget the feeling you have, the smells. That sums up the absence you feel when someone dies. Tony Takitani works for me like a film but also like a visual poem.”

Tony  2005 WILCO Co. Ltd
© 2005 WILCO Co., Ltd

Here, with ellisions, are other highlights of our conversation:

On selecting the reviews, interviews and essays included in his new book
The last time I did this was for the 1999 book “Contemporary Japanese Film,” which collected articles I wrote for the Japan Times from 1989. The publisher for that told me, “If you want to include all these reviews, you’re going to have to cut them down. They’re too long.” So I spent about a month and it was agonizing. I kept thinking, “Did I really write that?” This book wasn’t as bad. At the beginning of the millennium, I had about 1,200 words to play with. Now I have 550. It forces you to compress your thoughts, but it’s not quite enough. Every time they cut me down, I was fighting for the word count. Now I realize maybe it’s not so bad.

On whether his opinion of some films had changed since writing his initial review
Sometimes I see films after a long time and realize, “I liked this too much the first time around,” or I see something in it that I didn’t see before. That was the case with Tony Takitani, since when I first saw it, I hadn’t had the experience of having someone close to me die. And then I did. Seeing it again, I realized it’s a very artistic, very minimal film. But it’s deeply emotional, too.

Tony TakitaniFCCJ-1
©FCCJ

I have to give stars for the Japan Times reviews, and I think I gave 5 stars to only a few films every decade. I look back on those and think, “I really shouldn’t have done that.” (Pushed for examples, he finally relented.) There’s one called Sakuran, based on a manga by a woman, directed by a woman, starring the great Anna Tsuchiya, with a brilliant score by Ringo Sheena. I saw it and thought it was the ultimate feminist film. Women had been working so hard for so long to make any mark in the industry here, and it seemed like this was the breakthrough. I thought about it afterward. Really 5 stars? Maybe not.

On who will supplant the 4Ks (Kitano, Kore-eda, Kurosawa, Kawase)
They’re all over 50, and the ones coming up behind them, Koji Fukada and Miwa Nishikawa, are in their 40s. So they’re not young, but they’re ready to take the step up, too. Fukada’s new film was just selected for the Cannes 2020 label. I really like Shuichi Okita. We’ve shown six of his films at Udine, and every one has been a hit. He’s on the verge of a breakthrough. Shinichiro Ueda, director of One Cut of the Dead, is another one. We gave that film its world premiere at Udine, and it’s made more than 1,000 times its budget at the box office.

On film(s) he wishes had gotten greater attention
Jun Ichikawa’s, of course! And Nobuhiko Obayashi’s. He became famous abroad for House. I first discovered him in 1989 with Beijing Watermelon, about Chinese students in Japan. He was going to shoot in China but Tiananmen prevented it, so he just made a mock-up of an airplane and shot everything here. He plowed right ahead. I thought, this guy’s got balls and imagination. The last film he made before he died, Labyrinth of Cinema, a film made by a dying man [Obayashi had terminal cancer], had more energy than many, many films made by people healthier and younger, but not as brilliant as he was.

Tony   2005 WILCO Co. Ltd
© 2005 WILCO Co., Ltd

On which director has gotten too much attention
I mean, really, Japanese directors don’t get that much attention. Even someone like (Hayao) Miyazaki, when he started going abroad, Harvey Weinstein wanted to release Princess Mononoke as an arthouse film. It was so huge in Japan, and in the circle of overseas anime fans, but it just didn’t get out to a wider audience, compared with Pixar or Disney films.

On how he decides which films to review
It’s always difficult. I’ll look through all the upcoming films, watch the trailers, spend a day on that. Sometimes I think, “Oh, jeez. My time on earth is limited!” I’m at the point now where I don’t want to see a film I know I’m gonna hate. Very often the upcoming films are by directors I really admire or young directors who seem interesting, and I’ll [choose that way]. That’s only 4 films a month out of how many? Over 600 Japanese films were released last year, and I can’t cover them all. We have another couple of reviewers now, James Hadfield and Matt Schley, who’s covering all the anime. Thank god I have help.

On how much his own experience influences his choices of ‘good’ films
The famous critic Manny Farber once said, paraphrasing, “The critic watches the film, but the critic is also a man.” I don’t try to hide that. If something connects with me on a personal level, I mention it. One example is watching Koji Fukada’s Harmonium. That’s one of the greatest films [in a long time]. There’s a scene when the character played by Kanji Furutachi goes into the river to try to rescue his daughter. He comes out and he freaks out. If I’d seen the film without knowing anything about the situation, I might’ve thought he was overacting.

Tony TakitaniFCCJ-3
©FCCJ

But I have been in that situation, way back 40 years ago in my hometown in southern Ohio. I was on my bike, and a motorboat overturned. I’m a trained lifeguard, so I jumped in and swam out to the boat. People were screaming, “Get the baby! Get the baby!” and pointing to the water. It was very murky, I couldn’t see 2 feet in front of my face. I couldn’t find the baby. Then this teenager who was trying to help started drowning, so I went over to him. Finally, they brought the grandmother [who’d been holding the baby] to the shore, and she was just screaming and screaming. I thought, “She’ll never recover.” For whatever reason, Furutachi understood this. His character will never, ever be the same. And he gets that.

On documentaries
I write on documentaries when I can, when one is so important for some reason. Kazuo Hara just did one, Reiwa Uprising, about an election last year. It’s 4 hours long, and I sat, transfixed, throughout the whole thing. He’s someone who can do that to me. He also did Sennan Asbestos Disaster, and he spent years putting that together. He’s trying to be objective, but he has a point of view. He’s trying to get under the surface. He’s not really the friend [of the film’s plaintiffs], he’s making a film and he’s going to do what’s best for the film. For me, Hara’s work is equal to or better than what anyone’s doing in fiction films.

On whether his interviewing style has changed over the years
Interviews used to really intimidate me. I couldn’t sleep for days beforehand. Somehow, I got over that. My strategy was to read as much as I could about the person, see the film, but not write up questions until I was on the train to the interview, after everything percolated in my head. I have this scribbled question list with me like a safety blanket, but I never look at it because my objective is to start a conversation. A lot of directors have a script in their head, they’ve prepared what they want to say and they’re gonna somehow get it in there. So my strategy is to have a conversation and get them off script.

books
Schilling's new book, left, and others from Awai Books. ©Koichi Mori

On Donald Richie’s influence    
Donald Richie was my friend and mentor for about 20 years. He really encouraged me when I first started out. I could never repay him. We would go to movies together and talk about them afterwards. To hear the voice of Donald Richie is like hearing the pronouncement of God. He had no doubts about what he thought about a film. He lived in Ueno, in this little apartment overlooking Shinobazu Pond. He would invite me over to eat dinner and watch films. He had this collection of DVDs, all great films, and he would suggest titles. I’d say, “Hmmm, how about this one?” And he’d say “No, we’ll watch this.” He had this tiny TV sitting in his oshiire closet, which he used as a monitor, and he’d put in a DVD. All he had to sit on were straight-backed chairs. I thought, “I can’t slump, I can’t sleep, I’ve got to pay attention! Donald Richie is here! We’re watching this together!”

Watching with him, in the privacy of his apartment, I paid attention to every frame. He gave me that gift of attention. I’m still pretty degenerate in the way I watch some films, but one worth paying attention to, it’s worth paying attention. I always end up with 10, 12, 15 pages of notes about everything from the story to the editing to the camerawork. I wasn’t trying to be Donald Richie, I was just trying to hold my own in the conversation. So I had to bring my best game. That’s what he gave me.

For more anecdotes, as well as reviews, essays and interviews spanning the past 20 years of Japanese film, see Mark Schilling’s “Art, Cult and Commerce: Japanese Cinema Since 2000” (Awai Books, New York and Tokyo).

MISHIMA: THE LAST DEBATE


MISHIMA: THE LAST DEBATE
(Mishima Yukio vs. Todai Zenkyoto: Gojunenme no Shinjitsu)


 March 17, 2020
Q&A guests: Director Keisuke Toyoshima and novelist Keiichiro Hirano


FCCJ MishimaKM-8
Director Keisuke Toyoshima (left) and acclaimed novelist Keiichiro Hirano.  ©Koichi Mori

Yukio Mishima: the name still towers over the local literary landscape, especially when viewed from overseas. There is arguably no other Japanese writer whose works have been as widely translated, whose life — and death — have been as well documented internationally, whose controversial reputation has been subjected to such intense scrutiny.

No surprise, then, that many members of the audience who gathered at FCCJ to watch Mishima: The Last Debate had not only read most of his 34 novels (and/or his 50 plays, 25 short story collections and 35 books of essays), watched his film Patriotism, in which Mishima also stars, viewed Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters or Koji Wakamatsu’s 11:25 The Day He Chose His Own Fate. Those with an enduring interest may have also read the essential biographies by John Nathan and Henry Scott Stokes, or Andrew Rankin’s authoritative Mishima, Aesthetic Terrorist: An Intellectual Portrait.

FCCJ MishimaFCCJ-5   FCCJ MishimaFCCJ-3
©FCCJ

No surprise, either, that several audience members had even been present at the University of Tokyo, where The Last Debate is set, or had firsthand experience of the film’s 1969 time period, 50 years ago, when student rioting was convulsing college campuses across the country.

The surprise comes with the revelation of discovering/rediscovering Yukio Mishima, the man. No amount of reading him/about him prepares the viewer for the charismatic rockstar figure who dominates 45 minutes of The Last Debate’s runtime, in long-lost footage of a historic verbal duel between right and left that has been restored to 4K, and forms the centerpiece of the riveting new documentary.

Mishima-1 2020 Mishima The Last Debate Film Partners
©2020 “Mishima The Last Debate” Film

Surprising, too, is the choice of director. As Keisuke Toyoshima (There Is No Lid on the Sea, Moriyamachu Driving School, Maniac Hero) admitted to the audience, “I’ve been making genre movies, so I was [quite amazed] when I got this offer. TBS discovered at the beginning of 2019 that they had this footage from the 1969 debate, and a TBS producer who was a classmate of mine at Todai was involved in planning a documentary about [the time period]. He wanted to hire a director who [hadn’t lived through it] and thought of me.

“The best-known image of Mishima comes from his controversial 1970 suicide,” he continued, “so a lot of people have this idea that he was an eccentric man with extreme thoughts. That’s the image I had before I started making the film. But the more I learned about him, the more my image changed. It took a 180-degree turn.”

FCCJ MishimaKM-10
©Koichi Mori

Award-winning novelist Keiichiro Hirano (“The Eclipse,” “Dawn,” “A Man”), who is often compared with Mishima for his acclaim at an early age and the intensity of his intellect, provides expert commentary in the documentary, and joined Toyoshima at FCCJ. “I wasn’t surprised at all by the footage,” he told the audience. “I read my first Mishima novel at 14 and became a big fan of his work. I’ve read all his books, I’ve listened to him on CDs and I read the book about this debate (“Toron: Mishima Yukio vs. Todai Zenkyoto,” Shinchosha, 1969), which I’ve cited in my own writing.

“I’ve also had opportunities to talk with many people who knew Mishima in person, like Tadanori Yokoo, Jakucho Setouchi and Akihiro Miwa. They all talked about how charming he was. Everything they told me was about the genuine, human side of Mishima. So the image I had of him was very similar to how he appears in the footage.”

Mishima-3 2020 Mishima The Last Debate Film Partners
Although accounts differ about whether all the students were members of Zenkyoto, one can't help wondering how they breathed.
©
2020 “Mishima The Last Debate” Film

How he appears is this: Vibrantly cerebral, nearly pulsating with intellectual energy and wit, effortlessly commanding attention from the 1,000 students who were at the University of Tokyo’s Komaba campus on May 13, 1969 to see him. He had been invited by the Zenkyoto (All Campus Joint Struggle Committee) to debate his rightwing views with its revolution-minded members, and Lecture Hall 900 had been declared neutral territory to accommodate the exchange.

At the time, Mishima had already founded the private Tatenokai (Shield Society) militia and trained them (using live ammunition, the film reveals) with the Japan Self-Defense Forces. (Unbeknownst to his soldiers, he had probably already begun planning a coup attempt at the SDF headquarters to restore power to the ‘Emperor,’ which would precede his suicide the following year.)

FCCJ MishimaKM-1
©Koichi Mori

Providing essential context before focusing on the Todai meeting, Mishima: The Last Debate opens with heartbreaking scenes of Tokyo under siege, as students, radicalized from protesting the Vietnam War and the US-Japan Security Treaty, occupied college buildings and demanded affordable tuition and greater autonomy. Rioting quickly engulfed campuses, culminating in the barricading and burning of Todai’s Yasuda Auditorium, which marked the beginning of the end for Zenkyoto, which had instigated much of the violence.

Their final united act was to invite the “anachronistic gorilla” — as posters at the door crudely depicted him — to defend his views. “I came to see if words are still an effective method of communication,” Mishima tells the students in his 10-minute opening speech, and proceeds to amuse, impress and engage his audience with the mental agility of a gold-medal gymnast. Beating back each counterargument with poetic logic, he never once condescends, antagonizes nor treats his audience with disrespect.

But then he seems to meet his match in a smiling young man with a Buster Brown haircut and a baby in his arms. For a good 15 minutes, the documentary circles around Mishima’s increasingly theoretical interchange with Masahiko Akuta (who would go on to become an experimental theater pioneer, working with the likes of Shuji Terayama), until a student yells, “This is all philosophical nonsense! I’m here to see Mishima get beaten up!” And while this never happens, for many audience members, the earth moved that day.

FCCJ MishimaKM-12
©Koichi Mori

This much is clear from many of the commentators whom Toyoshima interviews in the film — including Akuta himself (still blazingly brazen), former University of Tokyo students, former Shield Society members and of course, Keiichiro Hirano — allowing them to elucidate and expand upon the debate in ways that are extremely valuable.

“Before I started making the film,” recalled Toyoshima, I did a lot of research and read a lot of books about Mishima. Most of them start by asking why he died, why he had to die, what was the story behind his death. I didn’t want to add yet another interpretation to all those that have been done. Instead of looking at the debate from the point of view of why he died, I wanted to focus on his life.

Mishima-2 2020 Mishima The Last Debate Film Partners
A match made in philosophical heaven: Masahiko Akuta and Mishima  ©2020 “Mishima The Last Debate” Film

“The reason I included the footage [from just before his] suicide at the end of the film is because I felt there was an interesting juxtaposition to be made between the 1,000 students in the hall during the debate, when his words really seemed to be reaching them, and the 1,000 members of the Self Defense Forces, who did not accept his message. I thought that comparison could be very interesting.

“The other reason is that I came to realize I was making a film about those who happened to meet Mishima during their lifetime, not about Mishima himself. The more people I talked to who were there during the debate, the more obvious it became that their encounter with him had had a powerful impact on their lives. In some cases, it even seemed to determine the future course of their lives.

Mishima-4 2020 Mishima The Last Debate Film Partners
©
2020 “Mishima The Last Debate” Film

“So I included the suicide because I wanted to focus on how those people who spent the day at Todai on May 13, 1969 felt about his death, about his loss. It’s not about the meaning of his death, but about how his loss was received by those who were there.”

Inevitably, the FCCJ audience wanted to know how the filmmaker and the novelist felt about Mishima’s stated hope to reify Japan under the concept of the emperor.

Hirano dove right in. “Mishima’s attitude right after the war was very critical of society and the LDP. That’s quite different from today’s conservatives, who only want to praise Japan. He spoke about an ideal image of Japan that derived from his prewar education, which was centered on [emperor worship] when he was young.

FCCJ MishimaKM-6
©Koichi Mori

“But he also tried to adjust to what was happening in Japanese society, to separate himself from his early idea of the emperor. He was successful in that, in the sense that he became a superstar novelist and a frequent presence in the media. He wasn’t really aligning himself with a democratic society, but he did embrace the materialistic aspects of [Japan’s capitalistic culture]. But he was tired of this by his mid-30s and reverted to his earlier image of the ideal Japan, and its [abstract traditional essence] under the 'Emperor.'”

Added Toyoshima, “As you saw in the film, Mishima says to the students, ‘If you’d said ‘Emperor,’ I’d have joined you’ [in their cause]. I wanted to understand why he said such a thing, and that was one of the motivations for me to interview so many people. I would be curious to know what Mishima would think of our current definition of tenno, since the Heisei Emperor (who abdicated the throne in 2019) seemed to support the constitution and traveled around the country trying to help people heal (after tragedies like 3/11). The recent emperors seem to sympathize with leftwing ideals.”

FCCJ MishimaKM-99
©Koichi Mori

Toyoshima stresses that although Mishima wielded both pen and sword, it is the former that has had the greatest lasting impact. Rarely has a film captured the dynamic interchange of ideas and the power of language in quite so compelling a form. Mishima: The Last Debate is a timely reminder that words, wielded judiciously and meaningfully, will always triumph over swords; that there is always a common ground even when arguing political ideologies at opposite extremes.

Is it possible, Hirano was asked, for political discussion in today’s world to remain civilized and courteous? “I can’t generalize about the current situation,” he responded. “I’m around the same age as Mishima when he was debating the Todai students, so as much as they seemed to be on an equal footing, I still think there was the sense that [an adult was talking to students], and students were talking with a star novelist.

FCCJ MishimaFCCJ-7
©FCCJ

“But there was a kind of balance which made the debate very gentlemanlike, even when the students tried to provoke him. There was a power balance. Today, especially on the internet, it’s nearly impossible to have a constructive conversation like this between people of opposing opinions. But I think in the proper venue, it is still possible.”

Toyoshima concurred. “I hope this film and the footage of the debate will communicate the passion and respect that were present that day. You see how the opinions were exchanged, how close physically the debaters actually were as they talked. Making the film, I wanted to believe in Mishima’s opening remarks — that words are still an effective means of communication.”

And so, it goes without saying, do we.

Mishima poster 2020 Mishima The Last Debate Film Partners
©2020 “Mishima The Last Debate” Film

Selected Media Exposure


FUKUSHIMA 50


 March 04, 2020
Q&A guests: Kadokawa Corporation Chairman and Fukushima 50 supervising producer
Tsuguhiko Kadokawa, director Setsuro Wakamatsu and stars Koichi Sato and Ken
 Watanabe


FCCJ Fukushima 50Koichi Mori-16
Ken Watanabe (left) and Koichi Sato star in only their second film together.  ©Koichi Mori

It was not lost on the sizable crowd gathered at FCCJ for a sneak preview of Fukushima 50 that they were in the midst of one disaster (COVID-19) while watching another unfold onscreen.

Many of them had been in Japan on March 11, 2011 and had covered its aftermath. Some had even been able to speak directly with the engineers, technicians, firefighters, soldiers and other staff who stayed at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant after the earthquake and tsunami had laid siege, risking their lives in a desperate 5-day struggle to prevent a total meltdown of the overheating atomic reactors and to minimize the (literal) fallout from the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.

Dubbed the “Fukushima 50” by the international press (but actually numbering in the hundreds), few of these brave workers — whether for fear of ostracism or reprisal — spoke on the record. But journalist Ryusho Kadota managed to interview over 90 of them, and their testimony was compiled in his 2012 nonfiction book, “On the Brink: The Inside Story of Fukushima Daiichi” (republished by Kadokawa Publishing in 2016).

FCCJ Fukushima 50Koichi Mori-5   FCCJ Fukushima 50FCCJ-7
©Koichi Mori

That book now forms the backbone of the powerful, poignant Fukushima 50, the first film that depicts the tragedy head-on and in minute detail. While fact-checkers are already sharpening their pens, there is no doubt that its nationwide release, just days before the 9th anniversary of the triple disasters, will open up an expanded public dialogue.

Appearing at the Q&A session following the screening, fabled stars Ken Watanabe and Koichi Sato discussed the timing of the release, their hopes for its impact and their own working relationship.

“When we’re in the throes of a national crisis like this,” Watanabe told the audience, “I think films, or at least this film, can give us an opportunity to reflect on ourselves, to reflect about the choices we’re making and which direction we should be heading in. I hope Fukushima 50 will provide an important opportunity to step forward into the future.” 

FCCJ Fukushima 50Koichi Mori-14   FCCJ Fukushima 50FCCJ-14
©Koichi Mori ©FCCJ

Recalled Sato, “When they first approached me with this project, I was wary. I thought it might be a little premature to come out with a film about Fukushima. It wasn’t long after the accident and there were still a lot of victims suffering from the experience. But after completing the film, we shared it with audiences in Fukushima. They understood there would be traumatic scenes, but they stayed until the end and thanked [director Setsuro] Wakamatsu for making it.

“So I went from thinking the film was premature to thinking that we’d made it just in time. It’s necessary for painful memories to fade, so that people can move forward. But you don’t want the memories to fade completely. Fukushima 50 creates an opportunity for us to reflect on the accident and in that sense, the timing is just right.”

The actors were flanked by their director, and by the chairman of Kadokawa Corporation, Tsuguhiko Kadokawa, who greenlit the project and served as its supervising producer. “I’d wanted to make a film based on the events of March 11 early on,” he told the crowd. “I had privately invested in a planned production with [late actor-director] Masahiko Tsugawa. But it was difficult [to move forward]. Then I read ‘On the Brink,’ and it pulled me back on track. We are approaching the ‘Reconstruction’ Olympics and Paralympic Games this year, and I wanted to complete it in time for that.”

FCCJ Fukushima 50Koichi Mori-13   FCCJ Fukushima 50FCCJ-9
Supervising producer Kadokawa (left) and director Wakamatsu. ©Koichi Mori, ©FCCJ

As for Wakamatsu, “What attracted me to this story was that it depicts all the strengths and all the weaknesses of human beings. There were all these workers who had to summon up the courage to volunteer to go into the reactor building. There are so many layers of vulnerability but also courage in these characters, and that’s why I was attracted to directing the film.

“Every year at this time, 3/11 has dominated the TV news, especially NHK. But I feel there has been less TV coverage recently, and I hope Fukushima 50 can be shown each year to encourage us to reflect on the pros and cons of nuclear power, among other issues.”

Wakamatsu’s film feels as tense as if it were unfolding in real time. Shot in sequence on a big open set in Suwa, Nagano, with 2,000 extras and some convincing computer graphics, it thrusts viewers straight into the harrowing eye of the developing disaster, and into the decision-making processes of the two men closest to the crisis, Toshio Izaki (Koichi Sato), chief of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Units 1 and 2, and Plant Director Masao Yoshida (Ken Watanabe).

F50 finding tsunami 2020 Fukushima 50 Film Partners
Daiichi plant workers react to the approaching tsunami. © 2020 “Fukushima 50” Film Partners

Fukushima 50 begins precisely at 2:46 pm on March 11, as the magnitude 9 earthquake strikes off the coast of Tohoku, triggering immediate reverberations at the plant. As workers stream from buildings, Izaki and his crew try to determine what damage has been done, and where. His longtime colleague, Yoshida, assesses the situation from his office in another part of the plant, and communicates via videocam with Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) headquarters.

But the quake has triggered a “mega-tsunami” with waves that will soon pour over a 40-meter-high seawall, engulfing the plant. Just 54 minutes after the temblor, Fukushima Daiichi experiences a station blackout, halting cooling systems and leading the reactors and spent fuel-rod assemblies to begin to overheat. Despite the remaining staff’s valiant efforts to keep equipment running with car batteries, the plant is soon running nearly manually, and technicians must risk radiation exposure to open valves the dangerous, old-fashioned way — wearing Hazmats and gas masks in utter darkness.

F50 1 2020 Fukushima 50 Film Partners
Izaki rallies his crew to assess the damage.  © 2020 “Fukushima 50” Film Partners

Working frantically to solve each fresh catastrophe as it emerges, and inspiring their workers by their own examples, Izaki and Yoshida confront the unprecedented crisis with tireless ingenuity and an occasional outburst that is fully earned. At one point, Yoshida drops his pants and moons his Tepco bosses in Tokyo. Eventually, his defiance of orders will help avert a disaster of global magnitude.

In a film that is as harrowing as it is moving, Sato and Watanabe shine. But their characters aren’t the only samurai at the plant; all the workers who stayed behind know they’re risking their lives, and Fukushima 50 celebrates their selfless sacrifices by depicting them in strength and weakness, in bravado and in teary-eyed relief. 

F50 Ken Watanabe 2020 Fukushima 50 Film Partners
Yoshida barks orders in the control center. © 2020 “Fukushima 50” Film Partners

The film provided the first opportunity in 7 years for Sato and Watanabe to act together (since Li Sang-il’s Unforgiven), and they were asked how it felt to be in the same film but almost never on the same set.

“There’s just one scene in which you see us together, and that’s in the toilet,” cracked Sato. After the laughter died down, he continued, “We shared many tense moments over that emergency red phone, and we gave a lot of thought about how we could convey the intensity of [those phone calls].

“We’ve both been working in the film industry for 40 years. There were many missed opportunities when we could have worked together. So it was a big moment when we could finally do Unforgiven together, and we managed to establish a relationship built on trust.”

Watanabe nodded. “It was definitely a challenging experience shooting Unforgiven, and we established a solid friendship. I remember Mr. Sato was approaching his 100th film at the time, and I told him I would work on his 100th even if it meant being a passerby in the background. But he made so many films so quickly, it just didn’t happen. 

F50 Koichi Sato 2020 Fukushima 50 Film Partners
Izaki before all hell breaks loose. © 2020 “Fukushima 50” Film Partners

“I’d actually received a few offers to play the plant director in other films before this one, but I’d felt it wouldn’t be enough to just depict Mr. Yoshida’s story. Then I read the script for Fukushima 50, which focuses on the character of Mr. Izaki, who grew up alongside the Fukushima Daiichi plant. When I saw how it was structured, I realized how dramatic the film could be. When I heard that Mr. Sato had been cast in the role, I immediately said I wanted to be part of it. I have complete trust in him as an actor.”

Asked how he had prepared for his role as Yoshida, who died in 2013, Watanabe answered, “Mr. Yoshida is the only character who goes by his actual name; the other characters have all been given new names. He was heavily covered by the media during and after 3/11, so I think that a lot of people remember seeing him. I knew it would be futile to simply mimic him, so I researched his background, his education, his career. But the most helpful thing for me was hearing from people who worked with him. They talked about how he responded to the accident, especially how he negotiated with the people at Tepco, in the government and how he tried to defuse the tension in the control center.”

FCCJ Fukushima 50FCCJ-10
©FCCJ
 

Thanking the team for a “challenging film,” one journalist asked the question on everyone’s mind: had they experienced any interference from either the government or from Tepco in making the film?

“We anticipated that we would get a question like this,” responded Kadokawa. “For 30 years, Kadokawa has been making films about social issues, like Jubaku: Spellbound, about (corruption in) the banking industry, and The Unbroken, starring Mr. Watanabe, which depicted an airline company (after the horrific crash of a jumbo jet, based on JAL 123). Many film companies avoid making such films in this era of sontaku (sucking up to the powers that be), in deference to certain parties or people.

“But it wasn’t our intention to make a film [condemning] a public utility, per se. The core message of Fukushima 50 is that we cannot conquer nature. As Mr. Watanabe’s character says in the film, human ego has made us disrespect nature. If the audience can take that message away with them, I would be very happy.”

Wakamatsu elucidated, “We didn’t hear any direct comments from the government. Maybe something was said behind closed doors, but we have no way of knowing. Personally, I received no pressure at all from the government. In fact, the Reconstruction Agency and the current prime minister were involved, and our former prime minister (Naoto Kan, who is depicted in the film), saw the film and I haven’t received any complaints from him. So I suppose there’s no problem.”

FCCJ Fukushima 50Koichi Mori-1   FCCJ Fukushima 50Koichi Mori-12
©Koichi Mori

Martin Fackler, Tokyo bureau chief of The New York Times in 2011 and the first foreign reporter to enter the Fukushima Daiichi plant after the disaster (his team’s coverage would later result in a shortlisting for the Pulitzer Prize), was one of the many FCCJ members in the audience who had firsthand knowledge of the events depicted in the film. Addressing Kadokawa, he said, “There are many versions of what happened in Fukushima, and the one you chose, by Kadota, is fairly positive. There are others that are more negative, and Yoshida left us his own version in the ‘Yoshida Chosho.’ Why did you choose the Kadota version?”

Responded Kadokawa, “It wasn’t until I read Mr. Kadota’s book that I realized there was a way we could actually tell the story. I felt that adapting his book would also allow me to realize Mr. Tsugawa’s dream. When you’re grappling with a theme like this, you have 100 people involved in the project and 100 different opinions. All we could do was stay true to the facts.

“It’s become increasingly complicated for the media to cover these issues, and we’re approaching a dangerous juncture when it comes to reporting through the media. In such an [environment], I think film may be a better medium for conveying the truth. Being a publisher myself, I still have this sense of respect and awe toward the medium that is film. I approached the project with the conviction that we were going to depict the facts, and I think we were able to do this.”

FCCJ Fukushima 50Koichi Mori-3 FCCJ Fukushima 50FCCJ-12
©Koichi Mori ©FCCJ

For his part, Wakamatsu was “quite confident that we could make an effective film that wasn’t just a chronological record of what happened, but was about the men who had to fight on the site. I felt it was an opportune moment to show the world what the Fukushima 50 were made of.

“I imagine that if the international media were asked what they would have done in that situation, face to face with death, many would answer that they would have fled. I suppose you could say that this sense of self-sacrifice or ‘Yamato spirit’ is a Japanese trait. It’s something that resonates throughout the film, and I wanted to share it with audiences.”

(There was no time to draw comparisons to first responders around the globe, who constantly put their lives on the line to ensure the safety and welfare of the community at large.)

But Fukushima 50 has already been sold to 73 international territories, demonstrating the universality of its remarkable story and the strength of its telling — so the dialogue about manmade disasters and the human toll is sure to expand.

FCCJ Fukushima 50FCCJ-17-2
©FCCJ

“I have a lot of friends living overseas,” noted Watanabe, “and I have the sense that the word ‘Fukushima’ has a very negative connotation. When we hear ‘Fukushima,’ it’s all about how Japan is still trying to come to grips with 3/11. We experienced Hiroshima and Nagasaki seven decades ago, and we’ve finally reached a point at which ‘Hiroshima’ and ‘Nagasaki’ have become words that prompt us to think about nuclear arms. They’ve become symbols of peace. In the same way, I hope that ‘Fukushima’ will prompt us to think about nuclear power, and that someday, the word has a positive connotation.”

His costar concurred. “A disaster like this is bound to leave a negative legacy,” said Sato. “But I think it’s very important to tell the story in an accurate way, and in the spirit of sublimating what happened so that we can leave a positive legacy for the next generation — as we were able to do with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I hope Fukushima 50 leaves audiences with that kind of sentiment.” 

F50 2020 Fukushima 50 Film Partners
© 2020 “Fukushima 50” Film Partners

Selected Media Exposure

Selected TV Exposure

  • 日本テレビ【Oha!4 佐藤&渡辺】映画に込めた思い ”未来に向かうステップになる”
  • 日本テレビ【ZIP!】渡辺謙のメッセージ 国難乗り越えるヒント
  • TBS【はやドキ!】佐藤浩市&渡辺謙 絶対の信頼関係
  • フジテレビ【めざましテレビ】佐藤浩市 映画化に葛藤
  • MX【モーニングCROSS】佐藤浩市×渡辺謙『絶対の信頼関係』語る

FIRST LOVE (Hatsukoi)


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


FCCJ First LoveKoichi Mori-1-
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.

FCCJ First LoveKoichi Mori-6  FCCJ First LoveKoichi Mori-10
  ©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.

FL main2019 FIRST LOVE Production Committee
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).

FL6 2019 FIRST LOVE Production Committee
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.”

FCCJ First LoveFCCJ-6  FCCJ First LoveFCCJ-5
©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.”

FL1 2019 FIRST LOVE Production Committee
©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.”

FCCJ First LoveFCCJ-2
©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.”

FCCJ First LoveKoichi Mori-12
©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?”

FL3 2019 FIRST LOVE Production Committee
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.”

FCCJ First LoveFCCJ-8
©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.

FL 2019 FIRST LOVE Production Committee

©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。 

BENEATH THE SHADOW


BENEATH THE SHADOW (Eiri)


 February 4, 2020
Q&A guests: Director Keishi Otomo and producer Masashi Igarashi


FCCJ EiriKoichi Mori-27-2
 Igarashi (left) cracks that it's a lot harder to make a film based on a prizewinning novel than it is to make one based on a manga,
which "Mr. Otomo has done time and again."
©Koichi Mori

Most of us know Keishi Otomo as the director and cowriter of the blockbuster Rurouni Kenshin trilogy, arguably the most globally successful samurai-swashbuckler franchise of our time. The first-ever Japanese helmer to sign a multipicture deal with Warner Bros., Otomo produced slick, big-budget, live-action adaptations of the popular manga/anime series that were instant classics for their mix of spectacular swordfights, slapstick humor and romanticism.

What we didn’t recognize from Rurouni Kenshin — or his other domestic box-office hits — is that underneath the polish of this world-class director, beats the heart of a poet.

But Otomo’s new film demonstrates just that. With his first arthouse title after three decades in TV and film, he takes a surprising turn toward the contemplative, the elegiac, the ineffable with Beneath the Mask.

 FCCJ EiriKoichi Mori-21
Otomo took time out from the final weeks of editing his summer Rurouni Kenshin releases.  ©Koichi Mori

Based on the 2017 Akutagawa Prizewinner “Eiri,” it is set in the director’s hometown of Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, both before and after the 3/11 tragedy. The sense of loss that infuses many of its scenes signals just how much personal resonance the story has for him.

Appearing after a sneak preview at FCCJ, Otomo immediately confirmed this. He recalled, “In 2011, I came to the decision, after working at NHK [since 1990], that I would leave the company to focus on making films without corporate backup. Just after I made that decision, 3/11 happened. The question that I’ve kept going back to is, Is there anything I could have done, or anything I can do [as a filmmaker] for my hometown of Morioka? I did receive project offers aimed at rejuvenating the area, and those planted a seed. But after I started my own company [Office Oplus], all the pieces finally fell into place.

“Also, since this is the year of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, and all eyes will be on Tokyo, that made me somewhat apprehensive about how Tohoku would be viewed. I wanted to make this film for the people of Tohoku, to express their thoughts and feelings, to record them in an accurate way and share them with audiences. So many bereaved family members said ‘Goodbye, see you later’ to someone who never came back. What happened to their pain, their sadness? I wanted to give them a voice. It’s that kind of sentiment that went into the making of this film.”

eiri-2 2020 Beneath the Shadow Film Partners  eiri-1 2020 Beneath the Shadow Film Partners
Ryuhei Matsuda as Hiasa (left), in his new life as a traveling salesman. Go Ayano as Konno (right), who's just arrived in Morioka. 
©2020 Beneath the Shadow Film Partners

The protagonist of Beneath the Shadow, Shuichi Konno (Go Ayano), first meets Norihiro Hiasa (Ryuhei Matsuda) when his pharmaceutical company transfers him to Morioka, where the latter already works. Both men are 30 years old and seemingly solitary, but they have little else in common. Konno is an introverted stickler for rules who spends his free time with books and a jasmine plant sent by his family; Hiasa is a smiling rebel, a rule shirker who loves to fish in the nearby rivers.

The two men begin to spend time together, and Konno develops his own fondness for angling as they fall into an uneasy comradery. Infected by Hiasa’s enthusiasm and the beauty of Morioka's natural surroundings, Konno starts emerging from his shell, joining the company’s sansa dance team and smiling more often.

eiri-3 2020 Beneath the Shadow Film Partners
©2020 Beneath the Shadow Film Partners

But one day, Hiasa abruptly quits and leaves town without a word. When he shows up again, half a year later, it’s to beg his friend to buy a policy he’s selling for a “mutual aid society,” since he’s “just one sale short of the quota.” Their friendship and fishing trips gradually resume, but Konno remains unnerved. And then 3/11 hits, and Hiasa completely disappears. Like so many others, he is assumed to be dead.

Konno contacts Hiasa’s father (Jun Kunimura) for news, and discovers that what little he knew about his friend had probably been a lie. He remembers what Hiasa said to him late one night: “You only see what the light hits for an instant. When you look at someone, you should look at the other side, the side where the shadow is deepest.”

eiri-4 2020 Beneath the Shadow Film Partners
The friends fish local rivers for a variety of species.
  ©2020 Beneath the Shadow Film Partners

Like its literary inspiration, the film’s tale of fly fishing, drinking and male bonding skirts obvious interpretation, as straightforward as it seems. It begins with the suggestion of tragedy, is driven by mystery and ends even more enigmatically than it began. Laden with subtext, heavy with meaning and metaphor, it’s that rare film where nearly every line, nearly every action, can be interpreted both literaly as well as symbolically.

Discussing the film’s title and its implications about the hidden sides of all of us, Otomo told the FCCJ audience: “Konno has so much anger inside him, which he represses and manages to live quietly. But we can feel it roiling underneath the surface. Hiasa is also full of complexities and contradictions. We sense that he is of the moment but also eternal. He’s an adult, but also childish; there’s a double-sidedness to his character.”

eiri-6 2020 Beneath the Shadow Film Partners
Konno reacts when he hears shocking news from Hiasa's father (Jun Kunimura).  ©2020 Beneath the Shadow Film Partners

Expanding on the character sketches, he explained: “Konno is an LGBTQ character, and as with such characters in many societies, not just Japan, he’s gone through many hardships. These have led him to be very sensitive about how people react to him. Since he’s come to Morioka as a newcomer, it’s liberating because no one knows that he’s gay. He’s embarking on a new life, but he’s lonely because he doesn’t know anyone.”

On the other hand, “Hiasa was born and brought up in Morioka. He’s free-spirited and doesn’t follow the rules. I think we can say he’s a metaphor for uncontrollable nature, anthropomorphized. He’s not ill-intentioned, he just doesn’t want to adjust himself to society’s norms.”

FCCJ EiriKoichi Mori-14
©Koichi Mori

Asked about the casting of his two leads, both of whom Otomo had previously directed, he admitted, “I basically went with my intuition. From the moment I read the novel, through the process of working (with Kaori Sawai) on the script, I felt these were the only two actors for the roles. With Mr. Ayano, he has this very intellectual, cultured aspect to his presence, while Mr. Matsuda is somehow just so cinematic. He has a very poetic presence. I just couldn’t wait to see them play the roles.”

Otomo was praised for eliciting such nuanced performances, and asked about his approach to directing them. He concurred that they were “wonderful,” and that Matsuda, in particular, “really grounded his role,” despite its challenges. (Matsuda won the award for Best Actor at the Hainan Island International Film Festival in December, where Beneath the Shadow had its world premiere).

FCCJ EiriKoichi Mori-20
   Igarashi produced Netflix's Hibana: Spark and Naoko Ogigami's Close-Knit, among other titles. ©Koichi Mori

“As with any good actor,” he said, “Mr. Ayano and Mr. Matsuda can tell from the production design and costumes what kind of approach you imagine in a certain scene. I didn’t have to explain a lot. And we didn’t talk a lot about the characters on set. I didn’t want to impose anything on their own interpretations. Sometimes it seemed like I was just shooting a documentary about the characters, except when they would occasionally veer too far from what I’d imagined. Then I would quietly pull them aside so we could discuss the scene. But mostly, I would work closely with my production designer to adjust the backdrops of the scenes to heighten the acting choices they had made.”

Otomo’s business partner and producer, Masashi Igarashi, was asked what it was like to work on the modestly budgeted project. “We’ve only been working together since founding the company 3 years ago," he responded, "but I was always a great admirer of Mr. Otomo’s work. He may be best known for Rurouni Kenshin, but he’s also done films like the two-part March Comes in Like a Lion, that are really rich, profound human dramas. Despite the fact that this film wasn’t on as massive a scale as his other work, I’m happy that we could make such a rich, intense film together.

eiri 2020 Beneath the Shadow Film Partners
Ayano first worked with Otomo on Rurouni Kenshin, while Matsuda had a role in
the director's first film, Vulture (2009)
  ©2020 Beneath the Shadow Film Partners

“It’s very difficult to make films like these in the present environment in Japan,” he lamented. “It’s a lot easier to make films based on manga — which Mr. Otomo has done time and again — than it is to make a film based on an Akutagawa Prizewinning work [that requires audiences to read] between the lines. But it’s still possible, and I hope audiences here and overseas will [appreciate] this.”

Asked for his own thoughts on the film’s international appeal, Otomo waxed nostalgic. “When I was growing up," he recalled, "I would go to a really tiny cinema in Morioka, and that was really my window on the world. I traveled the world and learned so much that way. I think film should be a submersive experience in a cinema, not viewed on a small screen.

FCCJ EiriFCCJ-15
Otomo with the film's Japanese poster. ©︎FCCJ

“I always hope my films will become a tool of communication. It was such an enjoyable experience participating in the Hainan International Film Festival, seeing how the audience digested and interpreted my film. Film isn’t only art, it’s a way to communicate.”

While it won't attract the frenzied fanship of his most famous series, Keishi Otomo's Beneath the Shadow is certain to travel widely, and to launch many a conversation — on love, loss, loneliness, trust and betrayal, not to mention hidden meanings in the water, the weather, the trees and even that pomegranate.

eiri poster en012020 Beneath the Shadow Film Partners
©2020 Beneath the Shadow Film Partners

Selected Media Exposure


COMPLICITY (Complicity Yasashii Kyohan)


 January 15, 2020
Q&A guests: Director Kei Chikaura and
stars Yulai Lu and Tatsuya Fuji


FCCJ ComplicityKM001-24-
Lu, Fuji and Chikaura — a talented and affable trio. 
©Koichi Mori

Nearly two years ago, writer-director-producer-editor Kei Chikaura took to the stage at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival amid warm applause, following the world premiere of his feature debut, Complicity. In the ensuing months, the film would have its European premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, its Asian premiere at the Busan Film Festival, and its Japan premiere at Tokyo Filmex, where it won the all-important Audience Award.

All told, Complicity would screen at more than a dozen prestigious international film festivals. Normally, this would lead to an early Japanese release, to capitalize on the film’s overseas success.

But these are not normal times. With relations remaining chilly between Japan and China, the Japan-China coproduction was delayed another year before finally making its domestic bow.

FCCJ ComplicityKM001-18
Chikaura and Lu react to one of Fuji's gentle wisecracks.
©Koichi Mori

Yet the timing couldn’t be better: As Japan struggles to become more immigrant friendly, it’s crucial that local audiences see more progressive, less superficial depictions of non-Japanese in the country’s media and the arts. Complicity provides exactly that, treating its Chinese protagonist with empathy and authenticity, erasing cultural barriers as it touches on themes of trust, friendship, family and food as the catalysts for building bonds.

It doesn’t hurt that Chikaura was able to cast the film with two certifiable stars, and that he had worked with both of them on short films prior to the feature: Tatsuya Fuji (In the Realm of the Senses, Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen) on Empty House in 2013, and Yulai Lu (Soundless Wind Chime, Trap Street) on Signature in 2017.

Appearing at FCCJ after the sneak preview screening for a Q&A session that stretched to an hour, the three were affable and voluble, visibly united in their respect for one another, and delighted that Complicity would finally be available to Japanese audiences.

FCCJ ComplicityKM001-8 2 FCCJ ComplicityFCCJ001-4 FCCJ ComplicityFCCJ001-7
Fuji (left ©Koichi Mori), Lu, Chikaura (©FCCJ)

“It’s really hard to secure cast and crew when there’s no promise of theatrical distribution,” explained Chikaura. “Fortunately, everyone believed me when I promised that it would be released in Japan, as well as internationally. I’m grateful that everyone had such faith in me, and that I was able to keep my promise.”

Fuji recalled that he’d first read the script three years ago. “I like Mr. Chikaura as a person, but that didn’t necessarily guarantee I would agree to appear in the film," he said. "However, I found the script to be very powerful, and I had faith that we would be able to get to where we are today.”

Lu concurred. “Since I first met Mr. Chikaura, I’ve seen him develop so much. Complicity was especially hard because we also filmed in China. As a director myself, I know how difficult it is to realize a film. I admire Mr. Chikaura’s confidence and hard work, and I really had a great time acting with Mr. Fuji.” (The feeling was mutual: Behind the scenes, Fuji lauded Lu’s acting skill, and his ability to communicate so much without dialogue.)

The scenes in China were coordinated by Chikaura’s Chinese producing partner, Wei Fu. “Without his help, I don’t think the film would have been possible,” the director emphasized.” He organized everything. We were shooting 1,000 km south of Beijing in Henan Province. We had to make the long journey by car three times before everything was ready. So it took a lot of preparation, but we were able to get the shoot permissions and wrap in 5 days.”

 Complicity-05 2018 CREATPS  Mystigri Pictures
Hiroshi and Kaori treat Liang like a member of the family. ©2018 CREATPS / Mystigri Pictures

Shot with a startling sense of immediacy and realism, Complicity opens in Japan, with Liang Chen (Lu), paying dearly for a fake ID and a cellphone so he can work. He’s immediately besieged with calls for Wei Liu, his assumed identity, and after finding language assistance, discovers that Liu has been offered a job as apprentice to a soba noodle master. It doesn’t pay much, but it comes with room and board. Given his circumstances, Liang doesn’t hesitate long. Soon he has moved into an attic room at his employer’s soba restaurant in Yamagata, and is arising at the crack of dawn to prepare the buckwheat with him.

Hiroshi (Fuji) runs the restaurant with his daughter Kaori (Kio Matsumoto), and they are grateful to have this eager, hard-working young man helping out. Despite his limited Japanese — and total lack of experience in the kitchen — he proves a quick study. His dedication earns Hiroshi’s admiration, and a touching father-son relationship quickly develops.

Delivering noodles one day, Liang meets and is smitten with Hazuki (Sayo Akasaka), an artist who is studying Mandarin in hopes of attending school in Beijing. But after she reports to the police that he’s lost his wallet at a club, he stops taking her calls, fearful that his true identity might be exposed at any moment.

Complicity-08 2018 CREATPS  Mystigri Pictures
Liang attempts to master the way of the noodle. ©2018 CREATPS / Mystigri Pictures

And then there’s his guilt: we learn through flashbacks that he has left his ailing mother and demanding grandmother in his native Henan, where family responsibilities had curtailed any dreams he might have had. He’d come to Japan in the hopes of working for 3 years, saving money and returning to start his own business. But an urgent phone call from home and the threat of exposure puts his new life, and his new family, in danger.

Chikaura was asked whether it was personal experience with the immigrant community in Japan that had enabled him to create such a sensitive depiction of Liang’s plight. “I didn’t know much about the issues before I embarked on the project,” he admitted. “But back in 2014, I read an article about a Vietnamese man who was part of the government’s technical trainee program, and it said that he’d slaughtered a goat and eaten it. That got me thinking about why he would have done that, so I began researching the immigrant experience. I spent about 18 months meeting and talking with immigrants here, which was crucial to bringing a sense of reality and conviction in the film. I felt a moral imperative to [do the research first].”

And how did he decide on soba as the film’s culinary metaphor? “There are two reasons soba became the film’s motif,” Chikaura explained. “The first is that we’d decided on Oishida, Yamagata Prefecture for our shooting location, and it’s famous for its soba culture. As you see in the film, the ‘restaurant’ is really a tatami room in someone’s house. It was apparently a custom for wives in the town to make soba to entertain visitors, and if they were particularly good at it, they would start serving the noodles and earning a living from it. That’s how the [home-restaurant] culture developed.

Complicity-06 2018 CREATPS  Mystigri Pictures trimmed
 ©2018 CREATPS / Mystigri Pictures

“The second reason is because of soba’s metaphorical qualities. It’s something that’s very simple, but it takes a lot of time and technique to master, which is exactly what I wanted to depict: something that’s simple but goes very deep.”

Fuji makes a thoroughly believable soba master, heaving huge bags of buckwheat, rolling and cutting with practiced finesse. Asked how he had achieved such realism, the star responded, “It’s troublesome when you have to play a detective or a cop or a yakuza gangster because you really can’t do research by becoming a yakuza. But when you’re playing a craftsman, you can try to become that craftsman. I get immense pleasure out of delving into role models for such a role.

FCCJ ComplicityKM001-13
©Koichi Mori

“A month before principle photography, I went up to Oishida. I had two masters as coaches. Every day for about 20 days, I practiced all day, [eventually] processing about 100 kilos of buckwheat. Once you’ve embodied a craftsperson, you [can concentrate on other things]. I focused on embodying how grateful I was that this young Chinese immigrant had come all the way to this small town in Japan and was willing to help out with my work.”

Chikaura recounted an anecdote illustrating Fuji’s mastery of the craft. “The meijin soba masters agreed to teach us on one condition: that the soba making would not be a lie when depicted on screen. They said that even with months of training, it probably wouldn’t be possible to show closeups of the actors making the noodles, since it would be instantly obvious that they weren’t professionals. Mr. Fuji said, ‘I understand. I’ll do my best.’

FCCJ ComplicityKM001-5
©Koichi Mori

“Toward the end of his training, one of the masters came to me and said that he’d passed the room in which Mr. Fuji was cutting soba, and that he’d heard a professional inside. He could tell just by the sound of cutting that it was a professional, and he was convinced it was a pro. When he found out it was Mr. Fuji, [he was amazed]. So the closeups you see in the film are really Mr. Fuji.”

Lu also trained to handle the noodles, and recalled, “Even when I read the script, I loved the parts with soba making. When I was making soba, I felt a natural connection to Mr. Fuji. I remember one scene in particular, when he was rolling out the dough and being very serious. It seemed like he was in his own world, and there was an aura around him that made me feel like he was really my father.”

FCCJ ComplicityKM001-2
©Koichi Mori

On the subject of family, the director was asked whether the sour relations between the Hiroshi character and his son were to be interpreted as a comment on Japanese families. “It wasn’t my intention to make a social commentary on families or the problems we have with immigrants in Japanese society,” answered Chikaura. “I just wanted to tell the story of a soba craftsman who welcomes a Chinese man into his house, and forms a pseudo-family with him. But it was also my hope that this story about a ‘father’ and a ‘son’ would symbolize amiable relations between Japan and China.”

Asked how it felt to see the film opening at long last, Fuji joked, “Like a defendant about to be put on trial.” As for Lu, “It was such a joy making this film. I feel like I had encounters similar to my character’s, meeting strangers [who become friends]. You never know what kind of encounters you’ll have, either in making a film or in life. I hope to work with Mr. Chikaura and Mr. Fuji again.”

FCCJ ComplicityFCCJ-poster
With the film's poster. ©︎FCCJ

While the image of an intercultural Japan, with people of diverse nationalities and ethnic backgrounds working together, may remain illusory, honest depictions of immigrants and their stories on screens large and small would help make that vision a reality. Kei Chikaura’s compassionate portrayal of a young man doing his best to atone for a bad conscience and bad choices marks a positive — and poignant — step.

Complicity is already available on DVD with English subtitles via Amazon, and it is currently going through the process necessary to obtain China’s “dragon seal,” which will allow it to be shown in Chinese theaters.

Complicity poster2018 CREATPS  Mystigri Pictures
©2018 CREATPS / Mystigri Pictures

Selected Media Exposure

TALKING THE PICTURES


TALKING THE PICTURES
(Katsuben!)


 December 2, 2019
Q&A guests: Director Masayuki Suo and star Ryo Narita


TwoKoichi Mori-1
Newly minted movie star Ryo Narita assumes character as his director, Masayuki Suo, cracks up.  ©Koichi Mori

The Golden Age of Silent Cinema lasted longer in Japan than anywhere else, spanning roughly 45 years (1896-1939). While the transition to sound was all but complete in the West by 1930, and many Japanese films were full talkies by the mid-1930s, the transition was delayed here. Why? Not because technology was lagging, but because of the popularity of katsudo benshi live narrators.

At the height of their immense popularity, around 1927, there were 6,818 benshi actively performing in Japan, including 180 women. These performers would not only write complete scripts for each film, they would enact all of the roles and narrate the action. Many of them were bigger stars than the actors on screen, with devoted fan followings and salaries that reportedly rivaled the prime minister’s (!). Books have been written about their influence on early filmmaking styles, and a handful of modern practitioners have regularly traveled the world to bring the art to today’s filmgoers.

SuoKoichi Mori-2
©Koichi Mori

So it comes as a surprise that benshi have never been the subject of their own fiction film. Talking the Pictures now rectifies that, and it is likely to launch a mini-boom in live-narrated films. Directed by Masayuki Suo, creator of such indelible works as Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t (1992), Shall We Dance? (1996) and I Just Didn’t Do It (2007), the story takes place over a decade in the early Taisho era, when motion pictures were still accompanied by benshi and a small musical group, but talkies were beginning to encroach on their dominance.

Although the subject seems — and is — right up his alley, for the first time in his career, Suo did not originate the idea for his latest film. Speaking to the audience at the Q&A session following FCCJ’s sneak preview screening, the director gave full credit for that to Shojo Katashima, who’d been his assistant director on Lady Maiko (2014). “He brought his script to me, but he came to me for advice, not to ask me to direct,” he explained. “He just wanted my comments on the script. I found it especially interesting because it was about benshi and how they supported the silent film era for 30 years. Japanese have either forgotten about benshi or didn’t know they existed, so I liked that the script spotlighted the profession. I also liked that it was written in a way that suggested the silent film style, with [slapstick action] that would make the audience laugh.”

NaritaKoichi Mori-5   NaritaKoichi Mori-2
 Ryo Narita studied with professional benshi for months to nail his performance in the film. ©Koichi Mori

Suo wasn’t the only one captivated by Katashima’s scenario. “Soon after I read it," he said, "my longtime producer, Shoji Masui, came to me with the exact same script and suggested that we should take on the project.”

From its opening frames, as children and weather disrupt the filming of a silent swashbuckler, to the hilarious bicycle chase in its final reel, Talking the Pictures enthusiastically proclaims its love for the movies. Endlessly inventive, populated with colorful characters and chockfull of clever period detail, it evokes the Taisho period through its production design as well as its (purposely) anachronistic storytelling, although it assiduously avoids becoming a melodrama like most of the films-within-the-film that its benshi stars narrate.

The story concerns young Shuntaro Someya (Ryo Narita), who has dreamed of being a benshi since childhood. Then he grows "as tall as a telephone pole" and falls in with a group of thieves who do their dirty work while he poses as a phony narrator, copycatting the styles of bygone benshi stars. By chance, Shuntaro escapes one day with a bundle of money and finds work at the small-town Aoki-kan, where audiences (and staff) have dwindled since the opening of a fancier rival theater nearby. It’s just the kind of place where he’ll be safe from the vicious head of the thieves (Takuma Otoo), who wants his cash back, and a police detective (Yutaka Takenouchi) who wants to punish the phony narrator for the “dishonor he’s brought to motion pictures.”

Talking the Pictures-Main2019 TALKING THE PICTURES Production Committee
Shuntaro escapes from the bad guy. ©2019 TALKING THE PICTURES Production

But when he gets his big break on stage one night, his pursuers discover his whereabouts. And then there’s the girl, Shuntaro’s childhood crush, Umeko (Yuina Kuroshima). The aspiring actress is in the Aoki-kan that night, recognizes the flourishes of his performance, and rushes to his rescue. But when (real-life film director) Buntaro Futagawa hires her for a role that will take her away to Kyoto, Umeko has to choose between a career and Shuntaro.
 
Team Suo favorites Naoto Takenaka and Eri Watanabe are slide-splitting as the owners of the ailing Aoki-kan, which is populated with some of the most uniquely endearing characters seen on Japanese screens since Suo’s 1996 hit. Masatoshi Nagase is the theater’s drunken former katsuben star, self-styled as the Poet of the Dark; Kengo Kora is the oily new star, too big for his own silk breeches; Fumiyo Kohinata is the unscrupulous owner of the rival theater and Mao Inoue is his seductive secret weapon for putting Aoki-kan out of business. Also making appearances are Sosuke Ikematsu as Futagawa, director of the classic silent tragedy Orochi (which plays under the film’s final credits), and Koji Yamamoto as Shozo Makino, another real-life director who is considered the father of Japanese film.

Talking the Pictures-12019 TALKING THE PICTURES Production Committee
©2019 TALKING THE PICTURES Production

But it is really Ryo Narita — whose presence on Japanese screens large and small has practically exploded since his first appearance just 4 years ago — who anchors Talking the Pictures, and with an exuberant, affable star turn that is sure to propel him even faster into the pantheon.

How did Suo find him? “I wasn’t really familiar with too many actors in the younger generation,” the director confessed. “I met a lot of young actors and actresses during the casting process, but the reason I ultimately cast Mr. Narita wasn’t his acting talent or his voice. It was because I liked him. [During casting] I said to myself, ‘I really like this young man,’ and that’s it.” (Cue appreciative laughter.)

He continued, “I think there are two reasons he’s so good in the film. First, as an actor, there’s a naturally good-humored, amiable side to him, and I knew that if I could bring that out in his performance, it would make Shuntaro a wonderful character. Secondly, he put everything into his training as a benshi. Exerting all that sweat and toil is a talent in itself, so I really [can’t take too much credit] for his amazing performance.”

Talking the Pictures-42019 TALKING THE PICTURES Production Committee
Shuntaro and his childhood love Umeko reunite for the first time in a decade. ©2019 TALKING THE PICTURES Production

Asked whether he had a natural aptitude for impressions, Narita told the FCCJ audience, “I think I probably do have a bit of natural talent. But it took me 7 months of training for 3 hours every day with a professional benshi to play this role. I didn’t even know there was such a profession, but when I saw what they did and how they did it, I realized it really fit my [natural physicality].

“The most amazing thing about benshi is that they actually take on three roles — that of scriptwriter, actor and narrator. The first time I performed, it felt really good. It really grew on me. After we wrapped, I had a yearning to continue, but I didn’t want to have to keep [training so hard].”

Talking the Pictures-32019 TALKING THE PICTURES Production Committee
Cops and robbers on the move. ©2019 TALKING THE PICTURES Production

In a discussion about the younger generation’s reduced attention spans and the trend toward interactive experiences, Suo was asked what he thought about the audience being encouraged to interact vocally with his film, a la Rocky Horror Picture Show. While the director grappled with the question, which was then rephrased to include the suggestion that he create a director’s cut and have Narita narrate all the roles, the actor warmed to the approach. “I’d love to do that, although I’m not sure my voice would hold out for 2 hours,” he enthused. But Suo, citing his age, remain unenchanted: “I’d rather have someone else make a film like that.”

In a film driven by a terrifically jazzy soundtrack, the theme song, which plays jauntily over the end credits, invites continued humming long after one leaves the theater. To the surprise of the audience, who imagined it was written expressely for Talking the Pictures, a film critic asked how an 1865 tune written for the American Civil War came to be used for the film. Responded Suo, “The song was actually sung by a big star in Japan in the Taisho era, if not the early Showa era, and became a massive hit. The title was ‘Tokyo Bushi’ and the lyrics were changed to focus on Tokyo. I wanted to use a song that was symbolic of the Taisho era, so we changed the lyrics again to focus on benshi.”

PosterFCCJ
Narita and Suo with the film's poster. ©︎FCCJ

At the end of the session, the audience was treated to a short live performance by Narita, who had to push himself way back from the microphone, since he’d learned to project his voice like a true benshi. Tilting his chin as he hit the lower registers, he recited lines by one of the many, many characters he’d voiced in Talking the Pictures, demonstrating his skill at raising goosebumps even when no action is taking place on the screen behind him.

 

Talking the Pictures poster2019 TALKING THE PICTURES Production Committee
©2019 TALKING THE PICTURES Production

Selected Media Exposure

THE 47 RONIN IN DEBT


THE 47 RONIN IN DEBT
(Kessan! Chushingura)


 November 20, 2019
Q&A guest: Director Yoshihiro Nakamura


FCCJ 47 RoninKoichi Mori-4
Yoshihiro Nakamura’s new film has our favorite movie tagline of the year: “Revenge is... ultra-expensive!”  ©Koichi Mori

When we talk about the “cost” of revenge, we invariably refer only to its psychological and physical tolls. This instantly makes Yoshihiro Nakamura’s The 47 Ronin in Debt — a title to be read literally, not metaphorically — a groundbreaking addition to the category of jidaigeki period films about loyal samurai exacting retribution for offences against their masters.

The versatile writer-director of cult hits like Fish Story and The Foreign Duck, the Native Duck, and God in a Coin Locker, as well as commercial hits like Golden Slumber, A Boy and His Samurai, The Snow White Murder Case, Prophecy and The Magnificent Nine, Nakamura has taken a unique approach to adapting one of Japan’s most oft-told historical tales, “Chushingura.”

Although the tragic real-life incident has already been adapted to stage and screen hundreds of times, he has now boldly reinterpreted it not only as a comedy of sorts, but also as a fiduciary thriller. Surely both are firsts in the “Chushingura” canon.

Ronin main2019 The 47 Ronin In Debt Film Partners
Shinichi Tsutsumi balances humor and pathos perfectly as Ako chief retainer Kuranosuke Oishi.
©2019 "The 47 Ronin In Debt" Film Partners

The idea came from Shochiku producer Fumitsugu Ikeda, with whom Nakamura had worked on 2016’s The Magnificent Nine, a samurai comedy that also has serious themes at its core.

As the director told FCCJ’s audience following a sneak peak of his new film, “It’s widely known that the story is a tragedy, but I wasn’t familiar with all the details. So I first spent about 3 or 4 months ingesting all the books and films about it. The more I read, the more I realized how difficult it would be to turn into a comedy. So I decided not to tackle the legend but to focus instead on the Ako Incident, basing the story on the actual account ledgers of the Ako clan, which were kept by the chief retainer, Kuranosuke Oishi.”

Nakamura had come across a 2012 nonfiction work by University of Tokyo historiographer Hirofumi Yamamoto, who analyzed period records pertaining to the 1701-1703 planning and execution of the revenge plot, and used them to reconstruct the timeline of events.

FCCJ 47 RoninKoichi Mori-8   FCCJ 47 RoninKoichi Mori-10

FCCJ 47 RoninKoichi Mori-2   FCCJ 47 RoninKoichi Mori-12
 ©Koichi Mori

“Oishi kept track of the Ako accounts. During the [two-year period of planning for revenge], they spent ¥100 million on 113 items, all of which were in the balance sheets.” he explained. “The legends tell us that Oishi had a lot of foresight and was very strategic. But when you look at what actually happened and the balance sheets he left behind, you find a character who’s quite different, and that’s what we’ve brought to the screen.”

Nakamura’s approach admittedly favors a Japanese audience, who are overly familiar with the story and the dozens of main characters, and thus won’t find the film’s multiple monetary and name captions distracting. In a roundabout way, he was asked whether he might have worried it become one of those only-for-Japan titles.

“My previous films have been invited to international film festivals, and I’ve heard enthusiastic audiences laughing during screenings,” Nakamura began. “When I was editing, I would even intentionally leave some space in the films for [the anticipated] laughter. But with this film, we did not have an international audience in mind, because we knew it was so dense with information. It’s the first time I’ve approached a film this way.

sub1 2019 The 47 Ronin In Debt Film Partners
Shochiku is cleverly billing the film as “budget attainment entertainment.” ©2019 "The 47 Ronin In Debt" Film Partners

“We were invited to the Tokyo International Film Festival last month, so we had to subtitle it. When I did a screen check of the subtitled version, I realized how challenging it would be for international audiences to watch it. So I must thank you for [taking up the challenge] of watching it tonight.”

Asked why he’d chosen the unconventionally jazzy soundtrack rather than a more traditional score, the director said, “This was my plan from the beginning. There were jidaigeki TV shows back in the 70s that used this kind of music and to my ears, it’s a good fit.”

The music certainly emphasizes the film’s comedy elements, which arise primarily from the relentless focus on finances. While the many previous screen iterations of “Chushingura” (directed by the likes of Shozo Makino, Kenji Mizoguchi, Kon Ichikawa and Kinji Fukasaku), have been all about the samurai code of honor, loyalty and self-sacrifice, Nakamura’s is all about the money.

FCCJ 47 RoninKoichi Mori-3
©Koichi Mori

The screen is sometimes awash with captions detailing the Ako clan’s expenditures for everything from actual salaries, uniform costs and travel expenses to a night out in the pleasure district for 20 rowdy warriors. These have been helpfully/humorously converted into today’s equivalents in yen (and in subtitles, dollars) based on the cost of a single bowl of soba noodles ($4.40).

How did Nakamura decide on that unit, one audience member wanted to know. “We considered many items,” he responded, “including the price of a bowl of rice or a per diem paid to carpenters. But we ultimately decided on soba. The Edo period lasted for 260 years, and the price of a bowl of soba was the only item that remained unchanged in that time.”

sub2 2019 The 47 Ronin In Debt Film Partners
Even a bowl of noodles is pricey when there are too many mouths to feed. ©2019 "The 47 Ronin In Debt" Film Partners

The 47 Ronin in Debt opens when Ako Lord Asano (Sadawo Abe) is at the height of a rather overzealous anti-corruption crusade. In 1701, he draws his sword on Lord Kira rather than pay him the expected bribe, and this results in his forced seppuku. Asano’s righthand man, Kuranosuke (a very good Shinichi Tsutsumi), is left to organize revenge with the fallen lord’s other devoted retainers. But the Ako must immediately surrender their castle, thus ending their tidy allowances and bringing their once-proud clan to the verge of bankruptcy. Kuranosuke’s immediate concern instead becomes to maintain solvency. There is just $877,000 in the treasury, and with 50 members of the clan plus their families, servants and his own concubines, the chief retainer soon realizes that his abacus-wielding accountants are mightier than any warrior.

Without them, attempts to win the shogun’s support for a restoration of the clan’s holdings cannot be properly financed, nor can anything else be accomplished. Yet as the days stretch into months and plans for vengeance remain just that, the samurai prove they will be spendthrifts. As the coffers are further drained and insolvency begins to engulf the Ako, Kuranosuke sees no other choice but to embrace the plan to assassinate Kira… if only they can afford the weapons and battle outfits to do it right.

FCCJ 47 RoninKoichi Mori
©Koichi Mori

Nakamura’s financial approach to the fateful years leading to the Ako’s revenge allows him not only to bring a fresh perspective to the tragedy and find a way into the comedy; it also adds a greater sheen of contemporary relevance. But the director declined to take the bait when questioned about the correlation, as a journalist noted Japan now “has the world’s highest debt.”

Said Nakamura, “It isn’t an intentional commentary on present-day Japan.” But he did note, “Back in the Genroku Era, it was the townspeople who put pressure on the Ako samurai to take revenge. And it was a time when the shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, was enacting onerous political policies.”

FCCJ 47 RoninFCCJ-1
Nakamura, in a happi coat similar to the Ako clan's firemen finery, with the Japanese poster. ©︎FCCJ

Nakamura had mentioned that they’d needed to costume 130 samurai for the film, prompting a journalist to see the Ako clan’s struggles as a metaphor for the act of filmmaking. Was that why, she wondered, there were almost no horses in the film?

“Horses are so expensive!” Nakamura laughed, admitting they’d had the budget for just a single steed. “I think you’re right that we can draw comparisons. In such a scenario, I suppose I would be the Sugaya Hannojo character (played by Satoshi Tsumabuki, he’s an aggressive type who constantly pushes his fellow samurai to attack). The producer would be Oishi Kuranosuke. When the assistant director would ask whether I needed a horse in a certain scene and I said Yes, the producer would later go to him and be very angry.”

But the producer is sure to forget all about that once the film debuts in Japanese theaters. It’s one of the two most hotly anticipated releases of late 2019 and is expected to finish in the year’s top 10 at the box office.

Ronin poster2019 The 47 Ronin In Debt Film Partners
©2019 "The 47 Ronin In Debt" Film Partners

Page 1 of 11

Recent posts

SOIRÉE

00:00 Saturday, August 22, 2020

KUSHINA

00:00 Saturday, July 18, 2020

AN EVENING WITH VETERAN FILM CRITIC MARK SCHILLING

00:00 Saturday, June 27, 2020

MISHIMA: THE LAST DEBATE

00:00 Thursday, March 19, 2020

FUKUSHIMA 50

00:00 Thursday, March 05, 2020

FIRST LOVE

00:00 Thursday, February 27, 2020

BENEATH THE SHADOW

00:00 Saturday, February 08, 2020

COMPLICITY

00:00 Sunday, January 19, 2020

TALKING THE PICTURES

00:00 Wednesday, December 04, 2019

THE 47 RONIN IN DEBT

00:00 Thursday, November 21, 2019
  • Go to top