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Karen Severns

Karen Severns

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


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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.

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©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.

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©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.”

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©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.”

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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.)

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©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.

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©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.

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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.

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©
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.

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©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.”

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©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.

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©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.

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©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


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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).

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©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.” 

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©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.”

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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).

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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.”

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©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.”

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©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.”

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©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.

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“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.” 

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© 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


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

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

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

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

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  ©Koichi Mori

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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©FCCJ

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

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

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©2019 FIRST LOVE Production Committee

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

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

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

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©FCCJ

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

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

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

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©Koichi Mori

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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©FCCJ

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

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

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

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

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


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 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.

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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.”

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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.

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©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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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©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).

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   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.

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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.

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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.

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©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


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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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 ©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.

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©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.’

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©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.”

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©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.”

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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.

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©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.”

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 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.”

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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.

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©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.”

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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].”

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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.”

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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.

 

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©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


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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.

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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.

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 ©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.

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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.

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©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.”

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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.

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©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.”

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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.

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©2019 "The 47 Ronin In Debt" Film Partners

I: DOCUMENTARY OF THE JOURNALIST


i: DOCUMENTARY OF THE JOURNALIST
(i -Shimbun Kisha Document-)


 November 12, 2019
Q&A guest: Director Tatsuya Mori and producer Mitsunobu Kawamura


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Director Tatsuya Mori . ©Koichi Mori

“In the political context of Japan today, the question really is, how much can a film accomplish?”

That was the Socratic response given by producer Mitsunobu Kawamura when he was asked why he had produced not one, but two films featuring the same woman in 2019.

The woman in question, crusading reporter Isoko Mochizuki, is the star of political thriller The Journalist — although she’s played by an actress and the role has been heavily fictionalized — and she is also the firecracker at the heart of i: Documentary of the Journalist, which follows the real-life Mochizuki so closely, she is barely absent from the screen.

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Mochizuki questions a government rep. ©Star Sands,Inc.

Kawamura, speaking to an overflow crowd at FCCJ following the screening of the documentary, admitted, “I hadn’t anticipated making both a documentary and a narrative film when we started. I think this is the first time in history that it’s been done. We actually had a different focus at first, but then a number of incidents took place in rapid succession that really should have brought down the Japanese government. The most film-worthy of these incidents was the rape case of Shiori Ito. But she was in a very difficult, delicate situation, and it was around that time that Ms. Mochizuki’s book ‘The Journalist’ came out, so we shifted our focus to her.”

Tatsuya Mori, the renowned director of such controversial films as A, A2, 311, Fake and now, i: Documentary of the Journalist, explained that he’d been working on his first narrative feature project when Kawamura hired him to direct a fictionalized version of Mochizuki’s book. When the producer then asked whether he could also direct a documentary about Mochizuki, Mori stepped down from the fiction feature to focus on the documentary.

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Kawamura (left) and Mori fielded a range of questions, many of them not what the producer, at least, was expecting. ©FCCJ

In June, The Journalist became a surprise hit in Japan. And less than a week before their appearance at FCCJ, Kawamura and Mori’s documentary won the Best Film Award in the Tokyo International Film Festival's Japanese Splash section, bringing them far greater instant attention than either had anticipated.

Although i: Documentary of the Journalist doesn’t mention Japan’s ranking on the 2019 World Press Freedom Index (it’s a very low 67; the US is at 48), its traditional media have earned increasing criticism for their herd mentality, for acting “more as stenographers than inquisitors,” as Motoko Rich recently put it in The New York Times, and for obediently following the dictates of their kisha clubs, which extend membership only to specific news organizations, allowing them exclusive rights to cover specific government offices with the expectation that questions will not be probing.

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Mori and Mochizuki chat during a break from filming, which took place from December 2018 until October. ©Star Sands,Inc.

That makes Mochizuki, a reporter for Tokyo’s largest regional paper, The Tokyo Shimbun, a notable exception. She has defied the dominant media culture and waged a lonely battle for the truth, becoming something of a press freedom folk hero for her prickly interactions with government officials, particularly at the Cabinet Office briefings that have helped make her (in)famous.

i: Documentary of the Journalist thrusts the viewer into Mochizuki’s daily life as she travels around Japan with her maroon roller luggage, chasing some of the biggest stories of the past year — from the ongoing disputes over US base re-siting in Henoko, Okinawa, to the initial dismissal of reporter Shiori Ito’s charge that she’d been sexually assaulted by a colleague with close ties to the Abe Cabinet, to the Morimoto Gakuen and Kake Gakuen school scandals implicating the prime minister and his wife — and relentlessly peppering officials with questions in her quest to get behind their smokescreens.

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©Koichi Mori

“What are you hiding?” she asks them. “It’s unethical to dodge scrutiny. You’re in charge, be responsible! What you’re doing is shameful.” It’s no wonder that, although her paper receives mostly supportive emails about her behaviour, there have also been death threats.

Mochizuki was publicly censured by the Cabinet Office earlier this year, and to the government’s surprise, hundreds of supporters turned up at the prime minister’s office, rallying on her behalf and pressing for greater transparency at the highest levels. “Isoko Mochizuki is me! Isoko Mochizuki is all of us! Fight for the truth!” roars the crowd in the film, as the journalist herself watches from the sidelines in amazement.

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There is an important message in the small ‘i’ of the film’s title, and it’s spelled out in text on the screen: “Don’t be ‘we.’ Be ‘I.’ First-person singular.” Mori was asked why he seems to be advocating for a more independent populace, when Japan is so famously consensus-minded.

He responded, “Human beings in the West as well as the East are group oriented. Because of groups, we have created wonderful cultures around the world. But there are side-effects: everyone moves in the same direction, like a school of fish. This leads humanity to make mistakes. ‘We’ is definitely important, but ‘I’ is also important. I believe that ‘I’ is too weak. I think we need to strengthen the ‘I’ in Japan.”

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Mochizuki at work in the Tokyo Shimbun newsroom. ©Star Sands,Inc.

Asked why Mochizuki seems to have a much stronger ‘I’ than ‘we,’ Kawamura purposely deployed two controversial Japanese expressions that have making headlines. “Ms. Mochizuki is really KY — kuuki yomenai,” he explained. “She’s oblivious to the surrounding atmosphere. And she doesn’t do sontaku — she doesn’t brown-nose (by anticipating and fulfilling superiors’ needs). In making this film, it occurred to me that the intense peer pressure that exists here is bringing Japan to a state of crisis, and really represents a danger to society.”

Have a century ago, esteemed journalist Edward R. Murrow warned, “A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.” As governments around the world continue oiling their misinformation machines, denying the public’s right to know, and waging war on the media’s “fake news,” Mori has understandably stepped up his advocacy of media’s all-important watchdog role. A professor of media literacy at Meiji University, he is also the author of over 30 best-selling books on social issues and the media, and winner of the Kodansha prize for nonfiction.

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©Koichi Mori

He recalled that when he’d approached the Aum Shinrikyo cult to request their permission to shoot the documentary A,which would earn him international acclaim upon its release in 1988, he was surprised to discover that no one else had bothered to even ask.

“OK, so here’s the quiz,” he told the audience. “Does that make me special? No, not at all. What I’m doing is what everybody should be doing. I only appear to be special because of the deteriorating standards of others. Ms. Mochizuki is the same. If she doesn’t get an answer the first time she asks a question, she asks again. If she still doesn’t get an answer, she goes and conducts firsthand research. She’s doing the job of a journalist. She only appears to be special because of the sinking standards of those around her.”

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©Koichi Mori

He continued, “The Japanese media is in terrible shape these days, but is that because they’re wrong-headed or weak? The media and Japanese society function together, and reflect upon each other. The reason the media is weak is because the public is weak. We elect third-class politicians because we are third-class citizens. We’ve got to find a way out of this dynamic, this mutual reinforcement. We’ve got to find a way to improve the situation overall.”

Asked whether Mochizuki’s example might inspire others, the director said, “It’s difficult. But as long as people have the feeling that the status quo is not desirable, there’s a possibility of change, whether they see these two films or not, whether they’re directly influenced by Ms. Mochizuki or not. As long as there’s a sense that things cannot continue the way they are now, it’s possible. There are many people in the media who are working very hard and have a strong sense of responsibility. If those people act on their sense of responsibility, then there’s a possibility for dramatic change to take place within the media.”

He waited a beat before adding, “Or alternatively, if 10 million people watch this film, then society will change overnight.”

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The filmmakers with the Japanese poster for the documentary. ©︎FCCJ

Kawamura was slightly more upbeat, despite rumors that the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs had pulled promised funding from another film he produced in 2019, Miyamoto, as punishment for his focus on Mochizuki. “Portraying a woman who fights on a daily basis at the prime minister’s office gave me great encouragement and strength in the course of making the film,” he told the audience. “I think [her approach] is something that’s very much needed… As a producer, my takeaway is that there’s nothing to be afraid of. It appears that there’s social pressure and that there’s a formidable force acting against us, but in fact, that’s a phantom. There’s no real danger in doing what we’re doing.”

As soon as Mori finishes adjusting the English subtitles to accommodate his final cut (he re-edited the film slightly after the TIFF world premiere, re-recording his narration in a more “relaxed way,” making the animation more “fantastic,” and changing the placement of the music), i: Documentary of the Journalist will begin making its international festival rounds. The good news for Japan-based viewers is that Shibuya’s Eurospace theater intends to screen the English-subtitled version.

Let the 10-million-viewers challenge commence.

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Selected Media Exposure

TORA-SAN, WISH YOU WERE HERE and Q&A in collaboration with TIFF


TORA-SAN, WISH YOU WERE HERE
(Otoko wa Tsuraiyo Okaeri Tora-san)


 October 3, 2019
Q&A guests: TIFF Opening Film Director Yoji Yamada,
TIFF Festival Director Takeo Hisamatsu and Japan Now Programming Advisor Kohei Ando


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Legendary writer-director Yoji Yamada plans to keep making films for another dozen years.  ©︎Koichi Mori

The hottest cinema ticket in Japan this year is sure to be for the 32nd Tokyo International Film Festival Opening Film. Eschewing its long-held tradition of selecting foreign titles for the honor, TIFF has hewed closer to home, where audiences across the country have been eagerly awaiting the release of the 50th title in the legendary Otoko wa Tsurai yo (It's Tough Being a Man) series.

That title — Tora-san, Wish You Were Here, from veteran helmer Yoji Yamada — will open TIFF 32 on October 28, and although the film’s beloved star will not be there (he died in 1996), legions of multi-generational fans will.

The Oscar-nominated director (for The Twilight Samurai in 2002) launched the series with Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp in 1969, when Japan was experiencing dizzying growth and audiences were nostalgic for simpler times. It proved so popular that Shochiku went on to release two Tora-san films each year until 1989, one in summer and one for the New Year’s holiday season. Eventually, 49 films hit theaters over a 28-year period, setting a world record. All but two of them were directed by Yamada and all starred Kiyoshi Atsumi as “Tora, the free-spirited fool,” a boisterous, penniless salesman who travels through a rapidly-modernizing Japan, falling in unrequited love and dispensing unwanted advice. The last entry was 22 years ago, shortly after Atsumi’s untimely death.

The 50th title has been completed in time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this remarkable achievement. But this isn’t simply a commercial ploy for closure. With Tora-san, Wish You Were Here, Yamada has done something truly groundbreaking: the film recaptures the spirit of the “lovable vagabond” through innovative technology that seamlessly interweaves new footage with 4K digitally restored footage featuring its late star. Rather than feeling like he’s been digitally inserted into scenes, Tora-san comes vibrantly, startlingly alive, and reminds us all how much he’s been missed. (For those who haven’t followed the series, it also serves as a fitting introduction, with actors literally aging 50 years on screen.)

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Yamada shares a laugh with his old friends Ando, left, and Hisamatsu.  ©Koichi Mori

Following a very special sneak preview of Tora-san, Wish You Were Here with English subtitles at Shochiku, Yamada joined TIFF Festival Director Takeo Hisamatsu and Japan Now Programming Advisor Kohei Ando at FCCJ for a brief rundown of this year's festival, and a rewarding Q&A session focused on his new landmark film.

At the packed session, which included many foreign fans — one of whom had flown in for two days from France just to cover the event — Yamada was asked about the biggest challenge of sustaining a series for 50 years. He responded, “Audiences always come to see a new Tora-san film because they want to see him again and spend time with him, so you can’t betray their expectations, and that’s [not easy].”

And then, sounding like another famous Shochiku director (Yasujiro Ozu, who likened himself to being a tofu maker), he sketched a metaphor: “I think my job as a director, especially with this series, is a lot like being a restaurant cook, trying to anticipate what the customers want to eat. You want them to say, ‘Oh, this is exactly what I felt like eating.’ You don’t want them to leave disappointed, the same way you don’t want the audience to leave disappointed. You want them to say, ‘This is exactly the kind of film I was hoping for!’”

The master chef also spoke, with several emotional pauses, about his star: “The most difficult film to make was the 48th film. By that time, Atsumi-san had become quite sick. We knew that he might have only two or three years left. So we were in a quandary about whether we should continue to shoot. We had to keep his physical condition in mind while writing the script.” (At Atsumi’s wake, Yamada would apologize for pushing his star so relentlessly; but one imagines Tora-san was a sustaining force for the actor.)

On a brighter note, he said, “It’s been 20 years since Atsumi-san died, but if he were still here and saw the film, I think he would be surprised. I have the same sense of surprise myself. In the very first Tora-san film, there’s a scene where Tora’s little sister Sakura, played by Chieko Baisho, is being proposed to by the man she later marries. Baisho-san was 25 years old at the time, and she’s 75 now. [In the new film] the other cast members have also aged, but Tora-san has stayed the same. In a sense, he’s like Chaplin’s Little Tramp or Marilyn Monroe.” 

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The iconic traveling salesman returns.  ©2019 Shochiku., Ltd.                                                    © 2019 TIFF

Asked how it felt to be selected for the TIFF opening slot, Yamada chose his words carefully. “There are numerous film festivals around the world, and needless to say, TIFF is the one that represents Japan. I think it’s very important for TIFF to have a certain character, a theme that differentiates it, something that people can’t find in any other festival. I hope that TIFF continues to work towards that goal so that it becomes a truly unique festival in the world.”

In fact, TIFF is differentiating itself this year by further intensifying its focus on Japanese offerings. Takeo Hisamatsu, in his third year as festival director, told the FCCJ audience, “As you know, the 32nd TIFF is being held in the first year of Japan’s new Reiwa Era. Next month, many guests will be coming from around the world for the ascension of the new emperor. We’re in the midst of the Rugby World Cup right now, and next year, we’ll host the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics Games. So Japan is in the global spotlight, and there’s no better time than the present to showcase wonderful films from Japan in this year’s TIFF.

“I feel almost a sense of fate that we’re able to present Yoji Yamada’s Tora-san, Wish You Were Here as the TIFF Opening Film, since I’ve been watching all the Tora-san films as they were released and I have a warm spot in my heart for the series. Also, being a former Shochiku employee myself, I’ve had the great pleasure of working with Yamada-san and the opportunity of visiting the set as they were shooting the films."

Kohei Ando, TIFF’s Japan Now programmer since the section was created six years ago, was also excited about Yamada’s inclusion. “The Japan Now section’s mission is to showcase recent Japanese films that reflect the present state of this country, its aesthetics, its culture and philosophy,” he explained. “In that sense, showcasing a film like Tora-san, Wish You Were Here as the Opening Film of the festival is very much in line with this purpose, as it’s one of the most prominent and noteworthy titles to open this year. I have a twinge of regret about not being able to show this wonderful film in the Japan Now section, but it gives me great satisfaction that we’re able to present it as the Opening Film.”

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Yamada and his Tora-san family.
©2019 Shochiku., Ltd.

Among the 14 films in the Japan Now section will be a selection of works by another legendary filmmaker, Nobuhiko Obayashi, of House fame. “As many of you probably know,” said Ando, “Mr. Obayashi was diagnosed with cancer three years ago. Nevertheless, two years ago he shot a wonderful film called Hanagatami. And despite his ongoing battle with the disease, he has now shot yet another, Labyrinth of Cinema, and it’s another marvelous piece of work.”

Aging, disease, death: the Q&A session couldn’t avoid these topics. But the multigenerational audience didn’t seem to mind. After all, these are essential components of Tora-san, Wish You Were Here.

The series resumes on the sixth anniversary of the death of Mitsuo Suwa’s wife, and the family has gathered at a memorial service behind Kurumaya, the traditional confectionery store on the approach to Taishakuten Temple in Shibamata, which has now been reborn as a modern café. Tora’s sister Sakura and her husband Hiroshi still live in the quarters at the back, which have remain unchanged. 

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Mitsuo, Izumi, Sakura and Hiroshi recall the old days.
©2019 Shochiku., Ltd.

After the service, conversation inevitably turns to lively reminiscences of the past (beautifully illustrated with “flashbacks” from earlier films in the series), especially the many times that Torajiro, the black sheep of the Kuruma family, brought his latest unrequited love interest back with him, sending the house into an uproar.

Tora’s now-40ish nephew, Mitsuo (Hidetaka Yoshioka), has recently left his office job to become a novelist. At a book signing, he runs into his first love, Izumi (Kumiko Goto), who moved away to Europe as a teen and now works there as a UNHCR diplomat. Both have since married and had children, but as they talk, the years begin to melt away. Mitsuo takes Izumi to a small jazz bar, owned by the still-gorgeous Lily (Ruriko Asaoka), Tora’s greatest love.

The two women last saw each other over 20 years ago on Amami Oshima, and Lily finally reveals why she and Tora never married. Later, they go to visit Sakura and Hiroshi, and it gets late, so Izumi sleeps on the second floor, with plans for Mitsuo to drive her to a reunion with her father the next day. And so a new chapter begins…

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Lily tells Izumi what happened.
©2019 Shochiku., Ltd.

“I have made dozens and dozens of films over the course of more than half a century,” Yamada told the audience. “But making this newest film in the Tora-san series, I wasn't sure just what I was embarking on. Throughout production, I was a bit anxious about it, but I was [looking forward to seeing] what it would ultimately become. When I viewed the completed film, I realized that it really took 50 years to make. Without my longevity, I wouldn’t have been able to make it.” 

A young foreign journalist praised the film and queried, “I think it’s quite a feat to direct a film this good at the age of 88. If you were to direct another, what would you want it to be?”

“When I think about my age, it fills me with anxiety,” the director admitted. “I sometimes feel I shouldn’t have this luxury of making films. But Clint Eastwood is still making films (at 89), so I suppose I should follow suit. Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira and Japanese director Kaneto Shindo both shot films until the age of 100, so I think there’s still hope for me.” 

Interjected Ando, to audience delight, “Yamada-san is just like Tora-san: he simply doesn’t age.” 

FCCJ TIFFYamada KM-7   FCCJ TIFFYamada KM-11   FCCJ TIFFYamada KM-13
Yamada charmed the audience with his candor and enviable energy.  ©Koichi Mori

Another foreign journalist, professing herself a fan of the series, asked what criteria Yamada had used to select the actresses who played Tora-san’s love interests, the so-called “Madonnas,” and why he hadn’t selected Momoe Yamaguchi, one of her favorite actresses.

Yamada responded, “First, I thought about what kind of actress he would fall in love with. Tora-san could really fall in love with just about any type of woman. Selecting the Madonnas for each film was an enjoyable process. Of course I also considered approaching Ms. Yamaguchi, but she’d already retired from acting, so that unfortunately couldn’t happen.”

In one of the film’s many touching flashbacks, a teenaged Mitsuo asks his uncle what life is for, and Tora answers, “There are times in life when a man is glad to be alive. That’s what we live for.” When an audience member asked Yamada whether he’d had times like that, the director grew serious. “To be honest, we live in a world where not everything is happy. There are situations both at home and abroad that we cannot be happy about. I hope there comes a time when I’m thankful to have lived this long so I could see it.”

The French journalist who had specially flown in for the event asked the director why trains and train stations played such an important role in all the Tora-san films, and why, in this one, a pivotal scene is set in an airport instead. Said Yamada, “Tora-san is a traveling salesman, always on the move. He can’t drive, so he has to take the train. But he doesn’t take the shinkansen, it’s too fast for him. He enjoys going from town to town on these slower trains. He enjoys drinking his sake and making friends on these train rides. And he’s never disappointed that he doesn’t arrive earlier. The way he's sees it is, ‘Why would I pay extra to arrive at my next destination any earlier?’ His sense of time is different from Mitsuo and Izumi’s, and that’s why you see them at the airport.

FCCJ TIFFYamada FCCJ-15
©︎FCCJ

“But there is one other time in the series where you do see an airport: that’s when Tora-san is going to Okinawa. He’s afraid of flying, so his family members have a hard time convincing him to get on the plane. Ultimately, he boards the plane only because an attractive flight attendant comes along and tells him it's safe.”

For those longing to revisit these and other earlier episodes, Shochiku is releasing 4K digital restorations of all 49 previous films on Blu-ray, culminating in the nationwide release of Tora-san, Wish You Were Here on December 27.

If you're lucky, you'll catch the film earlier at TIFF, which will be screening 170 films from past and present, and holding a variety of related events, from October 28 – November 5 in Roppongi, Hibiya and elsewhere in Tokyo.

Poster2019 Shochiku. Ltd.  Teaser Poster for Welcomback Tora-san TIFF Opening Film
©2019 Shochiku., Ltd. 

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WORDS CAN'T GO THERE


WORDS CAN'T GO THERE (Kaizan Take No Oto)


 September 26, 2019
Q&A session with David Neptune and John Kaizan Neptune
and a very special musical performance by
John Kaizan Neptune, David Neptune, Hitoshi Hamada and Christopher Hardy


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The Neptunes: fellow artists and snake hunters. ©︎FCCJ

It’s an old saw, that artists are incapable of expressing themselves through language alone. When words aren’t enough, they pick up the tools of their trade… and speak volumes.

In David Neptune’s penetrating, lyrical Words Can’t Go There, a renowned musician does exactly that.

Starting off modestly, as befits its subject’s humble approach to his musical prowess, the camera follows a man in jeans as he arrives by truck, enters a bamboo forest, digs, chops and emerges with a small stalk. “I like to think of music as a bridge that can take you to a nameless, timeless place,” the man says, in voiceover, placing the stalk in his truck. “Words can’t go there.”

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Hitoshi Hamada on vibraphone, John Kaizan Neptune on shakuhachi, David Neptune on take-da
and Christopher Hardy on percussion, a special live performance.
©Koichi Mori

A haunting tune of indefinable subtly and mystery fills the soundtrack. And suddenly, the camera lifts up and over the forest, taking flight as if the music has set it free.

Neptune’s film is, at heart, the story of a California surfer turned master of the shakuhachi (Japanese flute). But like all good stories about artists, it illuminates more than the process of creation.

Joining a select few films made by offspring about a famous parent, Words Can’t Go There was made by David about his father, John Kaizan Neptune, the most acclaimed non-Japanese practitioner of the shakuhachi, who has lived in Japan nearly half a century, recorded several dozen albums ranging from jazz, classical and traditional Japanese to world fusion, and performed across the globe.

FCCJ WCGT Koichi Mori
Director David Neptune ©Koichi Mori

Every member of FCCJ’s sneak preview audience had heard of John, but few of us knew his backstory, nor the particulars of his arduous journey to prominence. The documentary rectifies that, and our screening was followed by an extraordinary live musical performance, with John on shakuhachi, Hitoshi Hamada on vibraphone, Christopher Hardy on an array of percussion instruments, and David joining in for the final tune on the bamboo take-da drum, which his father had invented.

Neptune elder and younger then joined us for the Q&A session, which began with what felt like a rite of passage: “It was very interesting to work with David, because he has so much more expertise in [filmmaking] than I do,” said John about the filming process. “That was a real eye-opener. Early on, we were friends as well as parents, going surfing or hiking or hunting for frogs together. Later, when he started working with film, he became a fellow artist, as well as someone who was fun to hunt for snakes with. So it was a nice transition, that we could (now) relate to the difficulty of making it as an artist.”

WCGT 4 2019Ocean Mountain LLC
John Kaizan Neptune in concert. 2019 ©️ Ocean Mountain, LLC

The documentary traces those difficulties, but it isn’t until late in the film that the personal tolls really come into focus. Words Can’t Go There touches, quite movingly, on the sacrifices made by John’s wife and children while he was on the road half of every year, and on his own emotional distance.

A friend from Chiba, longtime FCCJ member John Harris, couldn’t resist asking, “Was it difficult to get Diane (Neptune) to participate? Some of the footage is really heartrending.”

Chuckling a little in discomfort, David replied, “It wasn’t hard to get her to participate. But it was probably my most difficult experience, asking her questions about her and my dad’s relationship. What child wants to ask their parents about what led to a divorce? She didn’t oppose being interviewed, but I think she was surprised by some of the probing questions that I asked.”

He went on to explain, “It wasn’t something I’d foreseen when I started the process. I thought, ‘Oh, I’m so impressed with my dad, with what he’s done, and I want to tell that story.’ But as I got into it and starting swimming upstream, I started finding all kinds of stuff that I felt I was obligated to explore. And that’s also thanks to the great people I worked with, like my cinematographer, Bennett (Cerf), who always prodded me to keep asking my parents more and more painful questions; and to (producers) Chiaki (Yanagimoto) and Mike (McNamara), who supported me throughout the process.”

WCGT 3 2019Ocean Mountain LLC
Neptune crafting a shakuhachi in his workshop. 2019 ©️ Ocean Mountain, LLC

The film traces John’s improbable journey from California to Chiba through a treasure trove of early photos and footage, as well as through interviews and performances with fellow musicians Kojiro Umezaki, Kifu Mitsuhashi, Kaaraikkudi R. Mani, Ghatam Giridar Udupa, Taizan Ohashi and Shinichiro Makihara. Family members recall that he had always driven himself hard. An early interest in the trumpet, inspired by his jazz trombonist father, gave way to an obsession with surfing, which led him to improve the surfboard by crafting his own, and finally, to enrolling in college in Hawaii so he could catch the best waves. While there, he took an Introduction to World Music class on a whim, and discovered the shakuhachi. It was love at first note.

In 1973, John moved to Kyoto to begin a rigid apprenticeship with grandmaster Genzan Miyoshi. A fellow student recalls that he would record their teacher’s playing on cassette, then “practice each phrase 500 times, 10 hours a day.” He was promoted to master in record speed, took the shihan name “Kaizan” (“ocean mountain”) and fled for the relatively free environs of Tokyo, where he could “do his own thing.”

That thing soon made him famous: John found his metier in the pioneering fusion of shakuhachi with jazz. Over the next decade, he appeared on innumerable TV shows, composed 80 pieces, released 10 albums in a variety of genres, and in 1980 — just 7 years after committing himself to a shakuhachi career — became the first-ever non-Japanese playing a traditional instrument to win Best Record at the annual Japan Record Awards.

John’s improvisations expanded the possibilities of the shakuhachi (“He’s someone who changed the game,” enthuses shakuhachi player Kojiro Umezaki, who performs regularly with the Silk Road Ensemble, in the film). Even as traditionalists criticized the achievement, John’s impact became increasingly global. As he’d done with surfboards, in his pursuit of the “perfect sound,” he also began crafting his own flutes, innovating them to create sounds never heard before, resulting in what aficionados dubbed the “turbo shakuhachi” for its large bores, and earning a reputation as the best tuner in the world.

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 ©Koichi Mori

Asked whether other musicians do the same thing, John told the audience, “Players don’t make their own shakuhachi, but you have to play quite well to be able to make one because you’re shaping the bore to create the sound. If you can’t play well, you don’t know if it’s you or the instrument when you’re trying to improve the resonance. But the reason for my start and my struggle with it was that no matter how much money I paid, I couldn’t find an instrument I was happy with.”

The film makes clear that most traditional instrument players in Japan belong to a certain “scene,” aka, a rigidly defined hierarchy of student and teacher that perpetuates certain schools or styles. Neptune has never followed that path. As a fellow musician notes, “John belongs everywhere, and yet nowhere.”

“Where do you think you belong?” he was asked at FCCJ. “No matter what kind of music you make or the communication you have with an audience, whether I’m playing solo or particularly when I’m working with other musicians, there’s a connection,” he said. “We share this love of music.”

FCCJ WCGT Koichi Mori-2   FCCJ WCGT Koichi Mori-3  FCCJ WCGT Koichi Mori-5
David explains the three stages of the filmmaking process. ©Koichi Mori

David has a global following for his comedy shorts on YouTube and Facebook, has won awards for a short horror film and has worked in a wide range of film industry positions, from interpreter to producer. But he had never made a documentary, and Words Can’t Go There marks his feature debut.

Asked how he knew when he’d completed the film, the director responded, “There were [essentially] three stages to making the film, which took 5 years. We shot about 500-600 hours of footage, enough for three different films, and there were probably three completely different films during the editing process.

“The first stage was me following my dad around with the camera, learning the process of documentary filmmaking. I followed him to schools in the Tohoku area, which was tough on me. It was hard to curb my own expectations, so the first stage was the reality shock of that. I felt destroyed. I was completely disappointed in myself.

FCCJ WCGT Koichi Mori-911
 ©Koichi Mori

“The second stage was when I finally put footage together from that 3-week trip and started showing a sample to people in LA. I was fortunate enough to put this great team together and we went back to Japan and filmed with Bennett. Then I thought, 'Now I’ve got a film.' I was feeling really good. Little did I know that I was still 3 years away from finishing.

“Then I asked my dad to send me some of the old VHS tapes that we had in our house in Kamogawa. He sent me a box with 56 tapes, and that wasn’t even half of them. They were all moldy from sitting in a humid closet in the countryside of Japan. But we found a guy who could actually clean and digitize them, then it took weeks to watch them. That was a huge thing that shifted the direction of the film, since I realized that we could illustrate things like the foreigner as a bear in the circus idea.”

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 ©Koichi Mori

What about that image of the lonely bear? “The lonely part comes with the daily practice and the composing and the working on flutes,” said John. “Those are solo activities. But when I perform the composition or sell the flute, then there’s the communication… the music brings us together.”

Despite his renown and dizzying performance schedule, Neptune does not have a fulltime manager and continues to do his own scheduling. “There was a period when I took any job I could get,” he explained. “The bottom line is, music is fantastic but music business is not so fantastic. If you’re doing a party for a big company, they’re not coming to listen to music. You’d prefer that they listened, but when they’re not, we do our own thing on stage and have a good time. But I ask for a lot more money than if someone asks me to play for a school and says, ‘We’d love for you to come and play for the kids, but we don’t have a big budget.’ That’s why I never lasted very long with a manager. Their primary focus is to promote you and to make money. I decide how much I ask for each individual job. The music business isn’t interesting, but the music itself makes up for it.”

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Kaizan plays near his home in Chiba.
 2019 ©️ Ocean Mountain, LLC

And what of teaching, the mainstay for most professional musicians? “When I started becoming a professional, one of the things I did was teach,” John admitted. “When I got busy performing, I couldn’t always make time for teaching regularly. I decided not to teach when I moved to Kamogawa about 35, 40 years ago.” David interjected, “He doesn’t really like teaching.” John nodded, “Yeah. It’s a wonderful thing, and in Japanese society, the sensei is right up there. I do seminars and workshops at special events.”

John Kaizan Neptune’s example and his enthusiasm continues to inspire musicians of every age, both at home and abroad. If you don’t have to chance to see him on stage, then do not miss this beautiful film about being an artist, a parent and a legacy.

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Father and son rock the take-da together. ©︎FCCJ

 

WCGT-1G 2019Ocean Mountain LLC
2019 ©️ Ocean Mountain, LLC

Selected Media Exposure

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