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Karen Severns

Karen Severns

5 MILLION DOLLAR LIFE

'Five Million Dollar Life': Assessing the value of a single life


5 MILLION DOLLAR LIFE (Gooku Yen no Jinsei)


 June 19, 2019
Q&A guests: Director Sungho Moon and star Ayumu Mochizuki


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Star Ayumu Mochizuki (left) and director Sungho Moon compare notes on Mochizuki's resemblance to the protagonist. ©FCCJ

Several months back, one of the producers of 5 Million Dollar Life expressed surprise when FCCJ’s Film Committee approached him about screening the film. “Are you sure that international audiences would be interested?” he asked, doubtful. “We thought it was purely for domestic appetites.”

We assured him that he was wrong. And naturally, we were right.

The film had its world premiere at the Shanghai International Film Festival on June 17, where it was met with great fanfare; its North American premiere is on July 11, in competition at the New York Asian Film Festival; and European festivals are locking in dates.

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©Koichi Mori

Most importantly for FCCJ, 5 Million Dollar Life prompted an enthusiastic Q&A session that could have continued long past its time limit, proving that the film strikes a chord with Japanese and foreign audience members alike.

5 Million Dollar Life encompasses an unusual range of social issues, some of them seen rarely on Japanese screens (and certainly not all together in a single film) — broken families, social media bullying, teen suicide, day-labor exploitation, homelessness, the underage sex industry, telephone scams, debt-prompted suicide, murder scene cleanups, even Fukushima’s toxic waste disposal — yet it manages to stay positive, to locate a delicate tonal balance between earnestness, laughter and tears.

In this era of copycat filmmaking in Japan, with its surfeit of franchised mainstream releases and its dearth of original stories, there’s nothing quite as exciting as a work that takes both its protagonist and its audience on a completely unexpected journey; nothing quite as heartening as the discovery of a fresh directorial voice, and of a young actor who has come of age and is apparently game for anything.

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Mirai (Mochizuki) may dress brightly, but his life is clouded by dark thoughts.
© 2019 "FIVE MILLION DOLLAR LIFE" Film Partners

As the film opens, it is the 11th anniversary of Mirai Takatsuki’s recovery from a near-fatal disease. Members of the local community, who together contributed the staggering sum of 500 million yen ($5 million), to pay for his open-heart surgery as a child, have gathered at his mom’s house to watch the annual televised tribute to the lad.

Mirai (Ayumu Mochizuki), who is now a diffident high schooler, has increasing difficulties living up to everyone’s expectations. All the media attention amplifies his self-doubt, and the online attention is even worse: “You’d be better off quitting… a life like that,” a stranger snipes on SNS. Mirai types back, “I’ll die, then. Just watch me.” But before he can seriously contemplate his next step, another stranger cautions he has no right to kill himself until he’s paid everyone back for their generosity.

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©︎FCCJ

And so, Mirai sets out to earn $5 million. When construction work barely covers enough for daily meals, he moves on to more lucrative employ, some of it questionable, some of it downright illegal. Along the way, he learns a thing or two about the world and himself, and just what the value of life really is — and a journey that began with familiar echoes of the teen suicide/coming-of-age/road movie genres has grown into something far more poignant.

The unique twists and turns of 5 Million Dollar Life hoist it way above the average offering; but so does the infectiously charismatic performance of its young star, who has quietly built a resume of spot-on portrayals since earning accolades for his striking debut in 2015, as a junior high student who is killed by classmates in Solomon’s Perjury I and II.

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Mirai with one of his rescuers, a shady man played by Ryu Morioka.
© 2019 "FIVE MILLION DOLLAR LIFE" Film Partners

Mochizuki is such a natural for the role of Mirai, it comes as a surprise that it had not been written with him expressly in mind. During the Q&A session after our screening, director Sungho Moon told the audience, “He was just the perfect actor for the role. Everyone asks whether we [rewrote the script after casting him], but we didn’t have to. I’m really thankful we found him.”

The young actor beamed. Did he feel a kinship with the character? He agreed, “There are similarities, but we’re completely different people. There were a lot of aspects to him that I could empathize with. For example, since I’m an actor, I have to deal with the pressure of being out there and having people see me. The source of the pressure comes from a different place, but in that sense, I think we’re really similar.”

Asked what had drawn him to such an unusual story for his first feature, Moon admitted that he hadn’t planned on it being his debut, but he “doesn’t have any regrets” about getting the chance to make it. That chance was given to him when he and Naomi Hiruta, a veteran stage and TV scriptwriter, won the grand prize in the New Cinema Project. The initiative, backed by entertainment giants Amuse and Gyao, aims to bring greater originality back to Japan’s movie screens by supporting emerging talent who want to tell original stories.

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A Hiroshima native, Moon had studied filmmaking in college in Korea before launching a career as a commercials director in Japan. In 2013, he was selected for the prestigious New Directions in Japanese Cinema project and directed the short 35mm film Michizure, giving him a powerful calling card in the industry. But Japan favors adaptations of existing properties, predominantly bestselling novels or manga. Luckily for us, Moon had other things in mind.

As the film explains, the average Japanese worker earns ¥230 million ($2.3 million) from birth to death, and the average lifetime expenditure is ¥210 million ($2.1 million) — meaning people devote just about their entire life earnings to live, and then they die.

How, then, did Moon and Hiruta arrive at ¥500 million ($5 million) for Mirai’s burden? “We looked at real-life cases of heart transplant surgeries and fundraising drives,” the director explained, “and the amounts raised were usually between $1 and $3 million. I made it $5 million for impact. Also, if it was an amount that was too close to reality, [we felt] it might conjure up traumatic memories for those who have actually gone through the surgery. So we fictionalized it.” 

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One of Mirai's many jobs, at Shared Sleep House TT Bears, with a customer.
 © 2019 "FIVE MILLION DOLLAR LIFE" Film Partners

Given the film’s cynical attitude toward certain events, Moon was asked whether he’d intended a strong criticism of certain aspects of society. He replied, “Because this wasn’t based on another work, we did have a discussion about whether the protagonist should be male or female. But we decided that if she were female, it would have been a story you’ve seen: a girl prostituting herself in order to survive. Also, we drew a clear line about Mirai not committing any crimes himself in the film. Of course, the protagonist is essentially on the brink of life and death, so he takes on jobs that are also on the brink, that are risky.”

Somewhat like Blanche DuBois, Mirai has always relied on the kindness of strangers. At some point during his journey, he meets a pimp who teaches him a few things about self-worth, and later saves him from life-threatening danger. When Mirai asks why he’s been so kind to him, the pimp tells him that Mirai is the type of person who deserves it. One audience member was impressed with the concept and wondered where it came from. Moon admitted, “Ms. Hiruta firmly believes it. However, I don’t think it’s so binary; you can’t split people into just two types, those who deserve kindness and those who don’t. There are still times when you want to be nice to people who don’t necessarily deserve it.”

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©︎Koichi Mori

Mochizuki was asked whether he’d done any firsthand research on the many odd jobs that his character takes in the film, particularly the unsavory ones. “I did quite a lot of research on the jobs depicted,” he responded, “but I was under 18, so I never experienced any of them, or went to places [like the Shared Sleep House].”

Was he worried about taking a role that had so many risqué aspects? He smiled and nodded. “My mother is very strict. So my only real worry was What is she going to think when she sees the film?” And what did she think? “She hasn’t seen it yet.”

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©FCCJ

Before running away from home, Mirai tells the TV interview crew that he plans to study medicine, so he can save children in return for being saved himself. “Is Mirai going to become a doctor in the end?” asked an audience member. “I don’t think so,” said Mochizuki. “He probably can’t become a doctor.”

So what will he be instead? “I think that he’ll finally start doing things that he’d always wanted to do, or had chosen not to do, before [his journey]. At least that’s how I felt after watching the film myself.”

And what, he was asked, are Mochizuki’s own plans for the future? “I recently had the opportunity to act in (popular TV show) Mr. Hiiragi’s Homeroom, and I was really inspired by my costar, Masaki Suda. Because of him, I would like to play a teacher someday… but not one who is sick.”

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© 2019 "FIVE MILLION DOLLAR LIFE" Film Partners

Selected Media Exposure

WE ARE LITTLE ZOMBIES


WE ARE LITTLE ZOMBIES


 June 5, 2019
Q&A guests: Director Makoto Nagahisa and producer Shinichi Takahashi


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Producer Shinichi Takahashi (left) and writer-director Makoto Nagahisa brought some friends to the screening. ©FCCJ

Blame it on the braids, the ready grin, the boyish mien. One could be forgiven for imagining that filmmaker Makoto Nagahisa identifies overly much with the protagonists of We Are Little Zombies, who are all of 13 years old.

There’s also the energized exuberance of his award-winning debut feature, which is exhilarating and mind-bending in equal measure, and seems to explode from the consciousness of a young person not yet bogged down with the wearisome woes of adulthood.

Belying his appearance and his demonstrated brilliance with visceral imagery, however, Nagahisa is in fact a thoroughly mature professional.

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Nagahisa fields wide-ranging questions. ©Koichi Mori and ©︎FCCJ (right)

Appearing at the Q&A following our screening of We Are Little Zombies, he responded to questions in a measured, thoughtful manner, underscoring the level of care and compassion that are crucial underpinnings to the film’s success, along with its stylistic inventiveness.

Although one critic called the writer-director a “mad scientist” (a compliment), We Are Little Zombies is in reality the work of a serious-minded (and seriously imaginative) auteur, a longtime Dentsu ad planner who in 2017 became the first Japanese to win the Sundance Short Film Grand Jury Prize, for And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool.

Producer Shinichi Takahashi told the FCCJ audience that his company, venerable Nikkatsu Corp., had immediately recognized Nagahisa’s talent and begun talking with him shortly after Sundance about plans for his first feature. “He promised to come up with ideas for five or six stories during his paternity leave, so we could choose one to produce,” he recalled. “But when his leave ended, he came to us with a full script.

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Hikari (Keita Ninomiya) at his parents' funeral.
©2019“WE ARE LITTLE ZOMBIES”FILM PARTNERS

“During development, he’d wondered if it might be difficult to do a story about 13-year-olds, since it might not do so well at the box office. But when he came to us with the script, I realized that was really the story he wanted to tell.”

We Are Little Zombies is a tragicomic exploration into parental neglect, loss, grief, alienation, media manipulation, personal growth and other capital-T themes. It is also the most manically inventive, colorfully chaotic, whacked-out, surrealistic, joyously vibrant film you will see this year, if not this decade.

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©FCCJ

Taking his cue from his juvenile protagonists, Nagahisa has adopted the style of a Super Nintendo RPG game, with characters each having to overcome various challenges before moving on to the next stage of their lives.

If the resulting candy-colored, eye-popping pastiche of madcap mayhem seems devoid of emotional depth for most of its running time, it is precisely because the director is echoing the children’s own emotional voids. But as it nears the finish line, Zombies sparks to poignant life, presenting its characters, as well as audiences, with an unexpected — but well-earned — catharsis.

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The Little Zombies in their performance wear, assembled at a garbage dump.
©2019“WE ARE LITTLE ZOMBIES”FILM PARTNERS

The film’s four protagonists meet for the first time at a crematorium. Hikari (Keita Ninomiya, who played the architect’s son in Like Father, Like Son), Ikuko (Sena Nakajima), Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno) and Takemura (Mondo Okumura) have all lost their parents at the same time. As they swap stories, they discover something else in common: they feel nothing at all for their parents, nor for most adults, except disdain. “Reality is too stupid to cry over,” says Hikari. Unable to grieve, unwilling to follow society’s absurd prescripts, they begin skipping school and hanging out together. Like so many of today’s plugged-in tweens, they have no dreams, no energy to move forward, no future.

Then one day, they find inspiration in a “garbage band” at a homeless encampment, where the members channel their misfortunes into music. The kids decide to form their own retro-chiptune band to try to retrieve their emotions, and dub themselves the Little Zombies. After creating costumes and instruments with stuff on hand, they find an online influencer (a hilarious Sosuke Ikematsu), have him shoot a music video and upload it. Overnight, they become viral sensations, and their mistrust of adults is amply rewarded (there are satirical cameos by Kuranosuke Sasaki, Youki Kudoh, Jun Murakami, Shiro Sano, Rinko Kikuchi and Masatoshi Nagase).

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©Koichi Mori

Nagahisa told the audience he was first inspired to write the film by a mysterious story out of Russia in 2016 dubbed the “Blue Whale Challenge,” an SNS phenomenon that reportedly targeted young gamers with a series of innocuous tasks that eventually led to a final challenge requiring players to commit suicide.

“This was making headlines around the world, and I was really shocked to hear it,” Nagahisa recalled. He’d been an avid gamer himself as a youth, especially when he was “in the throes of despair, since it made life a little easier. I could lose myself in games, and detach myself from reality. It was a filter for going through hardship.”

He apologized that the film “doesn’t have any real zombies.” But responding to a question about the metaphorical meaning of the title, he explained, “It’s a representation of the ways in which we’re incapable of communicating anymore, and it reflects the real world in the divide between adults and children.”

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Ikuko (Sena Nakajima) with her parents (Masatoshi Nagase, Rinko Kikuchi) before they die.
 ©2019“WE ARE LITTLE ZOMBIES”FILM PARTNERS

Praised for the film’s music, which Nagahisa himself composed (with the exception of the 1967 Zombies tune “This Will Be Our Year”) the director admitted, “Originally, I wanted to be a musician. I find that playing an instrument really helps give shape to certain internalized emotions and brings them to life. The music in the film is as important as the dialogue. Music is an artform that is more powerful than visuals. It instantly and directly reaches [the viewers'] heart. This was really my attempt to create a 120-minute opera.”

One audience member asked about the film’s references to writers Albert Camus and Franz Kafka. Said Nagahisa, “I studied French literature in college and was really into surrealism. I find a certain beauty in the juxtaposition of A and Z, rather than A and B. I think that absurdity should be accepted, and when it comes to dealing with the absurdities of life, surrealism is a tool and an approach that allows me to overcome them.

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Takahashi  ©︎Koichi Mori

“That’s why I’ve layered the images in the film the way I have. The story is about how the protagonists deal with the absurdities of their lives and with events that have no rational explanation, and it’s only natural that I would draw from Camus’ and Kafka’s works.”

As for those layers, the director was asked just how many cuts the film has. “There are 1,800 cuts, or about 180 scenes in 2 hours, so I apologize if I wore you out.”

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(Want to play Spot the References? Told that Zombies has a Juzo Itami (The Funeral, Tampopo) vibe, Nagahisa expressed enthusiasm for the work of Nagisa Oshima, Takeshi Kitano, Luis Buñuel, Michael Haneke and Richard Linklater, films like Kazuhiko Hasegawa’s The Youth Killer and La Jetée, and “films from the 70s and 80s, especially ATG films.”)

Another audience member, suggesting that the Zombies’ concerns seem specifically Japanese, asked about the film’s international reception (a foreign festival favorite, it won the 2019 Sundance World Cinema Special Jury Award for Originality, as well as a Special Mention in the Generation section of the 2019 Berlin International Film Festival).

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Sosuke Ikematsu (center) is a social influencer-cum-Zombies manager.
 ©︎2019“WE ARE LITTLE ZOMBIES”FILM PARTNERS

“I want to avoid generalizations about how audiences react overseas vs. Japan,” Nagahisa began, “but it seems that more Japanese understand this emotionless state of the kids and can empathize with it, having been accused themselves of being the same way when they were young. With international audiences, [discussions] have focused on the character arcs of the kids as they learn to feel emotions again. Also, there have been comments about how cool [the Little Zombies band] is, that it’s a survival strategy. Instead of succumbing to the depths of despair, they developed a tactic to forge their own path.”

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Takahashi and Nagahisa strike a pose familiar to all Japanese film fans. ©FCCJ

His producer nodded. “When he won the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at Sundance,” Takahashi recalled, “the reaction from Americans had been ‘This is our story, too.’ So we knew that Mr. Nagahisa’s themes have a certain universality, and the way he depicts the distance between children and adults also feels universal. [On this film] it was important to us to be protective of his visual sensitivity and to encourage his creative vision throughout the process. After the latest Sundance award, he’s received a lot of interest from studios and big-name producers, and [he’s considering several projects].”

Nagahisa hastened to add, “I didn’t make this film to win awards or praise. I made it because I truly, truly believed in it. And I made it as if my life depended on it.”

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©2019“WE ARE LITTLE ZOMBIES”FILM PARTNERS

Selected Media Exposure


JESUS (Boku wa Iesusama ga Kirai)


 May 8, 2019
Q&A guests: Director Hiroshi Okuyama and actors Chad Mullane and Hinako Saeki
 


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The "Godlike" director (left) with two of his stars. ©FCCJ

Japan comes in for a fair share of head-scratching over its “English” retitling of foreign films (personal favorites: New York Style Happy Therapy for Anger Management; Wild Speed for The Fast and the Furious).

But what happens when a director must decide on the English name of a film that is rather colorfully titled (read: potentially offensive) in Japanese? That was the dilemma facing Hiroshi Okuyama in 2018.

As the young filmmaker explained during the Q&A session following FCCJ's screening of his heralded feature debut, Jesus, “I had originally thought about calling it I Hate Jesus, a direct transliteration of the Japanese. But when it was selected for the San Sebastian International Film Festival, I was asked to reconsider. I got advice from a lot of people, and I realized that it was drastically different from the nuance of the Japanese title [Boku wa Iesusama ga Kirai].

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Chad Mullane, playing the eponymous character, triggers giggles. ©Koichi Mori

“First of all, boku is not the same as I. And Iesusama, or Jesus-sama, is very respectful, which is also not translatable. So the title I Hate Jesus sounded too rock-n-roll, according to some people. Also, I think there’s a different approach to titling films in Japan. With international films, it seems they [often] hone it down to a single word, which leaves the director’s intention up to the audience’s imagination. With Japanese titles, there’s a lot of explaining beforehand. So those differences in approach resulted in the difference between the Japanese and English titles of this film.”

We’ll never know whether his choice had an impact on the film’s fate, but Jesus propelled Okuyama to the New Directors Award at San Sebastian, making him the youngest recipient of the prize and making the film an instant Must Watch. It went on to garner further awards and acclaim at other international festivals, assuring that the emerging writer-director-cinematographer-editor will be on every programmers’ radar with his follow-up effort.

Asked whether he felt the festivals had been a good way to foment interest, Okuyama demurred, saying he didn't yet have enough experience to know. But he added, “As an independent filmmaker... you really have to think about how to commercialize your film, how to get as many people as possible to see it. I think entering international film festivals is one way to do that, and it’s better to do it than not to do it.” 

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Saeki, Okuyama, Mullane ©︎FCCJ

He recalled, “I didn’t have any qualms about having a religious figure like Jesus in my film when it came to Japanese audiences. But when it came to the audiences at San Sebastian, the anxiety set in. There’s this huge statue of Jesus Christ above the town, and I was really worried at first. But ultimately, the audience seemed to receive the film very well. They were able to read enough meaning into the film that they could understand the Jesus figure as both a symbol of the protagonist’s belief and as his imaginary friend.”

Suffused with a nostalgic glow and told entirely through the eyes of its 11-year-old protagonist Yura, Jesus is so gentle, so modest, that the international accolades may seem excessive on first viewing. But the story sticks long after one leaves the theater. 

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Yura in his new smalltown classroom. ©︎2019 Heikai Sengen

As the film opens, Yura (Yura Sato) and his parents are leaving Tokyo for a snowy town in Gunma following his grandfather’s death. Moving in temporarily with his grandmother Fumi (Akko Tadano), the introverted young boy attempts to fit into his new environment. Arriving at his new school, he is surprised when his classmates run off to “worship” after roll call. A helpful teacher loans him a bible and escorts him to the chapel, where a sermon is delivered, a prayer recited and hymns sung.

Completely unfamiliar with the Christian catechism, Yura proves to be a fast learner. One morning during the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus himself (Chad Mullane) appears before him — apparently invisible to everyone else — and silently communicates “Ask and ye shall receive.” So Yura begins to ask, and when his wishes are granted, to have faith in His power.

By divine intervention, he even becomes best friends with the most popular boy in the school, Kazuma (Riki Okuma), who loves soccer and has a gorgeous, giggly mom (Hinako Saeki).

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Kazuma and Yura ©2019 Heikai Sengen

Everything is wonderful until tragedy strikes, and Yura is faced with a full-blown crisis of faith.

Jesus is filled with delightful surprises and oddball moments and its snowy setting is shot with breathtaking beauty (by Okuyama himself, who also edited the film). There is also an autobiographical dimension to the story (an important dedication appears in the end credits that suddenly puts things into perspective).

Prompted to tell the audience more about that, Okuyama explained, “I did have the experience of losing a friend when I was just about the same age as Yura, in 5th grade. I remember the teacher coming to me and saying, ‘Let’s pray together.’ I was really puzzled by that, to tell you the truth. So I always had in mind that, if I were to make a film based on my own experience, this was one of the things I wanted to depict.”

While the film is anchored in reality, Okuyama’s singular approach to depicting Jesus elevates it to art.

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Mullane indicates where he will be taking confessions. ©Koichi Mori

Mullane, who appeared at FCCJ in full Christlike regalia, from the robes of flax to the crown of thorns, stayed in character throughout the Q&A session, regularly cracking up the Japanese press. Although he’d had no lines in the film, his silent antics therein — from ascending upward with arms spread to hanging out with Yura as he takes a bath — spoke reams about the character. Mullane, an Australian-born comedian who’s a member of the Yoshimoto comedy empire, was no less goofy in person.

“Hello,” he introduced himself to FCCJ’s crowd in Japanese. “I am Jesus Christ. I have come from Gotanda, my second hometown, by train, where everyone was praying to me. I would like to extend an offer to hear your confessions tonight. If you’re interested in confessing, please see me later.”

When Okuyama was asked about the subtitles, which were done by Mullane, the director responded, “I didn’t give him much guidance. But one thing that really impressed me was how meticulous he was regarding which Christian denomination the [characters] were members of, since that would affect the sacred verses they were reciting. I think that was one of the reasons it was so well received among international audiences.” 

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Yura celebrates Christmas with Kazuma and his mother.  ©︎2019 Heikai Sengen

Mullane chimed in: “Apparently we had a barter agreement. If I wanted to appear in the film, I had to do the subtitles.”

Protested Okuyama, “Let me set the story straight: we cast Chad before long before thinking about subtitling the film. It was only later that I discovered Chad also did subtitles. There was no barter.”

When Okuyama was asked about the subtitles, which were done by Mullane, the director responded, “I didn’t give him much guidance. But one thing that really impressed me was how meticulous he was regarding which Christian denomination the [characters] were members of, since that would affect the sacred verses they were reciting. I think that was one of the reasons it was so well received among international audiences.”

“There are many truths,” quipped Mullane.

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Saeki  ©︎Koichi Mori

Asked about casting Hinako Saeki, known for her roles in horror films, as Kazuma’s mother, Okuyama said, “I’d seen her in films in the past, and I felt she had the qualities I was looking for, especially for the final scene. It’s a devastating scene, and she had to be as devastating as she was in it, because that’s the completion of the protagonist’s character arc, where he parts way with Jesus. So it had to be a strong moment and she had to be a strong character.”

Recalled Saeki, “The first time I read the script, I was thoroughly impressed. I actually cried three times while reading it. I honestly didn’t know why the director came to me for the role, but I was so honored and so happy to be part of the film.”

And the casting of the eponymous role? “I had Chad in mind from the get-go,” Okuyama said. “I’d already decided on him even before I had the script. I only had the [plot outline], so I couldn’t even give a script to him. I’d seen him on TV, and what I liked about him is that he sometimes has this expression that makes him look like a few screws are loose.”

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©Koichi Mori

Before Mullane could fashion a retort, he was asked whether he’s Christian himself. “I died and was resurrected, so I suppose I must be a Buddhist,” he responded, coyly.

Did he have any fears or trepidation about taking the role, portraying a Christ figure the likes of which the world has not seen? “I was a bit worried about being a punchline,” admitted Mullane. “But referring to the bathtub scene, it wasn’t me who parted the waters. And [referring to a scene of sumo wrestling] sumo is almost a religious sport in Japan. I do think the director was the most God-like figure on the set.”

Okuyama was asked about his relationship to faith today, so many years after it had been shaken. “I do believe in Jesus Christ and I do believe in Christianity,” he said. “Why did I then make a film called I Hate Jesus Christ? I had an interesting experience at the Macao International Film Festival. There was an audience member who was Christian but very excited about the film, so I asked him what he thought about that title. He said he thought that hating something means that you believe in it. So I realized that’s [the way I feel], and I do believe.”

In a film of only 76 minutes, Hiroshi Okuyama has created a world that feels not only true to life, but also otherworldly.

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Yura and the school minister.  ©︎2019 Heikai Sengen

When a journalist asked about the opening scene, in which an old man pokes holes in shoji screens, he replied, “My grandmother told me that my own grandfather [did that]. When we got to the set and I saw the shoji, I started wondering why he did it. I thought perhaps he was trying to imagine this other world that he was about to enter, and I thought it was a good metaphor for religion: that people are peering into a world that is beyond them or is on the other side.”

He added, “I think it’s important for film to leave a little room for interpretation and not to explain everything. So I intentionally left room in this film. If audiences are able to derive their own meanings from it, that will make it a more personal film for each of them.”

“Notice that the director also leaves room for interpretation with his eloquent answers,” cracked Chad Mullane, suitably claiming the final word.

And with that, audience members moved to the other side, ie., to the club restaurant, which was finally open in the late evenings.

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©︎2019 Heikai Sengen

Selected Media Exposure

TV Exposure

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KINGDOM


April 16, 2019
Q&A guest: Director Shinsuke Sato


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Shinsuke Sato  ©Koichi Mori

It’s the type of question that every filmmaker secretly longs to hear.

It came to Shinsuke Sato following FCCJ’s sneak preview of his hotly-anticipated period epic, Kingdom. “A lot of live-action adaptations of manga are a disappointment,” an American film critic told him. “But yours are always so good. What’s the secret sauce? What makes your adaptations so great?”

Forever humble, the director responded, “There’s no secret sauce. When you have a script for an adaptation, you want to make it into a film that is good as a film. I don’t feel the pressure of having to conform to the original work or to adhere to it as closely as possible. I approach manga adaptations the same way I approach an original story.

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“There are certain details I can imagine some might pay attention to. For example, this manga has x number of fans and they are expecting x type of work, and therefore we have to meet their expectations. I don’t have that in mind. Instead, I think about what would ideally be a good film, sometimes drawing on my own experiences as a moviegoer. I start from scratch, in a sense, even if it’s based on a manga.”

Then, warming to the question, Sato delivered a few of the ingredients, if not the entire recipe. “When I do a manga adaptation, there are always two basic things that I want to accomplish,” he admitted. First, for fans of the original work, I want to surprise them. I want the film to exceed their expectations by a mile. I want them to say, ‘Wow. I didn’t expect this!’ I want to give them the type of entertainment that only cinema can give. I want them to understand why it was necessary to bring that work to the screen.

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©︎Yasuhisa Hara/Shueisha  ©︎KINGDOM Film Partners 2019

“Second, I want to entertain audience members who are not familiar with the original manga, and make it accessible even if they don’t know what the story is. In order to accomplish these two objectives, you have to always be thinking about the essence of what is fun and entertaining. That’s what I do.”

And that’s what he has done now for nearly 20 years, helming one blockbuster action hit after another, many of them also international award-winners. Heralded for his mastery of CG effects in bringing fantastical worlds to life, Sato’s major works include the Gantz series (2011), the Library Wars series (2013 - 15), Death Note: Light Up the New World (2016), Inuyashiki (2018) and Bleach (2018).

Kingdom is not only certain to bring him another box-office success; there will surely be a sequel. Any doubters need only examine its pedigree. 

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Kento Yamazaki as Shin. ©︎Yasuhisa Hara/Shueisha  ©︎KINGDOM Film Partners 2019

Kingdom is the first live-action adaptation of the bestselling manga series by Yasuhisa Hara, which started running in Shueisha's Weekly Young Jump in 2006, won the Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize in 2013, and has now been collected into 53 volumes and sold an eye-popping 38 million copies.

To the eternal bemusement of non-Japanese, the series presents a fictionalized account of China’s Warring States period, which ended in 221 BC when Ying Zheng, king of Qin, succeeded in conquering six rival states and unifying China. In Hara’s manga, however, all the names of the characters — many of whom are based on actual historical figures — have Japanese names and speak in Japanese. The same is true of the film, so Ying Zheng becomes Eisei; his trusted general, Li Xin, is Shin; and his half-brother Zhao Chengjiao is Seikyou.

Kingdom achieves a widescreen grandeur and heroic scale that are rare in Japan, partially due to the film’s budget (small by Hollywood’s standards; bountiful by Japan’s) and its three-week shoot on a massive open set in Zhejiang, China. Last year at this time, it was temporary home to a handful of Japan’s leading young actors, 700 crew from Japan and China, close to 100 horses and some 10,000 extras.

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Ryo Yoshizawa as Eisei. ©︎Yasuhisa Hara/Shueisha  ©︎KINGDOM Film Partners 2019

Sato had first come to FCCJ in 2016 with his superlative zombie flick I Am a Hero, a film that benefitted greatly from its extensive location shooting in South Korea, about which the director and his star, Yo Oizumi, had shared both hilarious and heartwarming anecdotes.

Asked why he’d been inspired to shoot in China, Sato responded, “The film’s story takes place in ancient China, so it was only natural to shoot there. That’s what I’d envisioned from the moment the project started. I really wanted to see what it would be like to collaborate with a Chinese crew. Having had the experience of shooting in Korea, I had a lot of fond memories of all the sweat and toil we put into the production, and that influenced my desire to shoot in China.

“The collaboration in China was in much the same spirit as it had been in Korea. We had core crew members who were Japanese, but we also had a large local crew. There was some trepidation, because there are differences in customs and practices, and of course there was the language barrier. We were worried about how it would turn out, because we had massive scenes to shoot and limited financial resources. But when we arrived, we discovered how robust China’s film industry has become. The crew were really skilled, and we enjoyed very effective collaboration through all the filmmaking processes. The Chinese crew put a lot of attention into details, and we really appreciated that.”

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But the shoot wasn’t without its challenges. Asked about the best and worst of these, Sato recalled, “We had crew members in Shanghai and Beijing. The studio lot was a 5-hour drive from Shanghai, so it was quite arduous logistically, and there was a lot of communication that couldn’t take place in person. For example, we had a vendor in Beijing for all the costumes, and although we rented a lot of them, we also had to make many of them. So there was a lot of back-and-forth communications about the details. There were difficulties because what we wanted to do was often different from the style in which they were used to making costumes. It took a lot of time and effort to get all the nuances across.

“But what made a great impression on me was that they were really diligent and stuck with us until the very end. There were certain details that we wanted to fix or change, and with a Japanese production we might not have been able to do that. With this company, they responded to all our requests, and what they produced was very nicely done.”

As with all of Sato’s work, costumes are absolutely crucial to the creation of his colorful characters and his imaginative worlds. Kingdom is no exception.

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Masami Nagasawa as Youtanwa. ©︎Yasuhisa Hara/Shueisha  ©︎KINGDOM Film Partners 2019

Set in approximately 245 BC, during China’s Spring-Autumn Warring States period (770 BC-221 BC) in the state of Qin (present-day Shaanxi province), it tells the tale of two young war orphans, Shin (Kento Yamazaki), who dreams of becoming the greatest general under the heavens, and Hyou (Ryo Yoshizawa), who just wants to win against Shin in their daily sparring matches. They’re separated in their teens, when an emissary from the king takes Hyou away to work in the palace. Shin continues to train alone and dream big. Then one day, Hyou suddenly returns.

He bears an urgent message, leading Shin to a surprising encounter with King Eisei (also Yoshizawa), who dreams of uniting all seven of the Warring States under a single banner. But Eisei’s half-brother Seikyou (Kanata Hongo) has led a successful coup, and before unification, Eisei must first amass enough allies to help him reclaim the throne. Shin signs up, but the challenge is staggering: Seikyou has 80,000 soldiers at his beck and call, and Eisei’s forces barely number 3,000.

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Kanata Hongo as Seikyou. ©︎Yasuhisa Hara/Shueisha  ©︎KINGDOM Film Partners 2019

Praised by another film critic for his direction of the film’s many action scenes, Sato said, “I relied on crew members that I’ve worked with for a long time, all the way back to Princess Blade [in 2001]. We had all this experience of creating action sequences together, and that formed the basis of the film. We had a lot of discussion and debate about each sequence, and one of the things we did was to shoot video of all the action scenes in an empty room before going on to the set, because there’s a lot of drama in those scenes, too. We shot footage like an indie film, cut it together and discussed what we needed to change. So there was one extra step in the process.”

The director admitted that he couldn’t take credit for the casting of megastar Kento Yamazaki (best known overseas for playing Josuke in JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable). Asked why he’d been selected to play Shin, Sato explained, “The producer had already made the decision to cast him before I joined the project. It was like: ‘Kingdom, with Kento Yamazaki.’ Mr. Yamazaki has played a variety of roles in the past, but this was quite a departure from his previous films. I think it was a challenging and difficult process for him, but he is very savvy and smart, a really passionate actor. We discussed his approach to the character a lot, but what he created made it seem that he was accustomed to roles like this, and it fit him really well.”

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Sato with the posters for the film. ©FCCJ

With such an enormous cast, the leads aren’t the only roles to savor. There is also Masami Nagasawa as Youtanwa, the high-kicking chieftan of the mountain tribe; Tak Sakaguchi as Saji, an exceedingly cruel mercenary; Masahiro Takashima as Eisei’s righthand man Shobunkun; and Takao Osawa, making his return to film after a 3-year absence, as the greatest general under the heavens, Ouki.

How did Sato lure Osawa back to the cinema when he’d gone on public record as having lost his acting mojo? “General Ouki is a really popular character with fans, and I can imagine there was a lot of discussion about who was going to play the role,” said Sato. “So a lot of thought went into the casting choice, as well as into the visual design. A lot of effort of went into the makeup, the beard, the armor. Because he’s such an overwhelmingly powerful character in the manga, we thought it would be quite a feat for us to ground him in reality. I think we did a pretty good job of that, and I think Mr. Osawa delivered the vibrancy of the character that fans expect.”

Whether Kingdom’s realm will now expand to encompass the entire globe is yet unkown; but at least it will be coming to fans old and new in the US, where Funimation will be releasing the film later this year.

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©︎Yasuhisa Hara/Shueisha  ©︎KINGDOM Film Partners 2019

Selected Media Exposure


SHUSENJO: THE MAIN BATTLEGROUND OF THE COMFORT WOMEN ISSUE (Shusenjo) 


April 4, 2019
Q&A guest: Director Miki Dezaki


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If you have even a casual interest in Asia, Miki Dezaki's Shusenjo should not be missed.  ©FCCJ

The FCCJ has hosted many a press conference devoted to what is perhaps the most incendiary flashpoint in Japan’s postwar relations with Korea and China. Since the early 1990s (at least since 1991, when Hak Sun Kim became the first Korean to testify about it), the comfort woman issue has spiraled into a seemingly insurmountable impediment to improving ties in the region.

The internet has encouraged a proliferation of counterproductive arguments and counterarguments about the treatment of these women, casting doubt on “the truth” and creating an increasingly bifurcated divide. One side supports the victims, who have given moving accounts of the outrages perpetrated against them; the other side insists the women were well-paid prostitutes and the Japanese government was not complicit in “creating a massive, organized rape system,” as has been charged. 

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Surprisingly, until Miki Dezaki’s Shusenjo: The Main Battleground of the Comfort Women Issue, there has not been a feature documentary that thoroughly investigates the facts, figures, opinions and distortions of both sides. For this reason alone — and there are many, many others — the film is absolutely essential viewing.

Appearing at the jam-packed Q&A session following FCCJ’s screening, the director told the audience: “I always get the question ‘Why did you make this film?’ And one of the reasons why is that I thought a 2-hour film could flesh out or give context to this issue that the media aren’t able to do in the short time they have to report on it … I thought maybe there needed to be a more comprehensive introduction to the issue, to remind ourselves how we got here.”

Unless you’re a member of a neo-nationalist group with ties to Japan or a devoted fan of Japan-focused YouTube videos, you’ve probably never heard of Dezaki, aka Medama Sensei. In 2012, the Japanese-American teacher (as well as former Buddhist monk and graduate of Sophia’s Global Studies Graduate Program) raised uyoku (far-right) ire by posting a short video called “Racism in Japan,” in which he discussed zainichi Koreans and burakumin outcasts. It led to relentless online attacks by Japanese neo-nationalists, ongoing harassment, even death threats.

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The placement of comfort women statues in California has aggravated
tensions even further.  
©No Man Producions LLC.

Realizing that deeper issues were at play, Dezaki eventually decided to meet the challenge head-on.

He spent the next several years conducting the type of balanced, in-depth reporting that was once the purview of the news media. On his own dime, he criss-crossed the globe, meeting with a wide-ranging group of experts and eyewitnesses, amassing footage from milestone events dating back to before WWII, even conducting man-on-the-street-style interviews. Then he edited it all into a comprehensive, comprehensible whole.

Shusenjo does a remarkable job of exploring, explaining and de-sensationalizing this most contentious of disputes in Asia, this “gross human rights violation” that has also impacted the lives of women in China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Burma, Malaysia, East Timor and Micronesia. 

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Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, where war dead are enshrined.  ©No Man Producions LLC.

Dezaki casts himself as the lead inquisitor and seeker of understanding in the film, and patiently counters arguments on both sides of the ideological divide. Shusenjo probes a range of crucial questions: Were all comfort women “sexual slaves?” What does “coercive recruiting” really mean? Does the often-inconsistent testimony of the elderly victims even matter? Does Japan have a legal responsibility to apologize? Are the Chinese paying for those comfort women statues in California? Where the hell is the smoking gun? Why are venerable newspapers like the Japan Times “redefining” their vocabulary around the issue? And what does it all have to do with Shinzo Abe’s march to remilitarize Japan?

Shusenjo lays out a complicated timeline of acceptance of facts and increasingly aggressive denials, with unexpected confessions and revelations that allow Dezaki to deconstruct the dominant narratives and uncover the hidden intentions of both supporters and detractors. Few, it turns out, are innocent of fanning the flames of outrage.

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The filmmaker was asked whether his opinion had changed during the process of making the documentary. Dezaki nodded. “I think I was like every other American who’s read about this issue in the newspaper. It’s taken as fact in America that there were 200,000 women, and they were sex slaves who’d been forcibly recruited. I had no information to rebut that, so I took that as fact at first. Through research and interviews — I actually interviewed more people on the conservative side first — I started to question a lot of things that I thought I knew.

“I didn’t have anything to rebut them with, either. I had this constant going back-and-forth as I was making the film. That was emotionally difficult because, as human beings, we want to have an idea of what’s right. We don’t want to waver and be in the middle. I wanted the audience to feel that as they watched the film. There were times I was challenged and re-challenged on a lot of issues. I had debates and discussions with my co-producer and associate producers, and I didn’t come to my conclusions until the editing stage of the film.” 

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Young supporters of the comfort women in Korea.  ©No Man Producions LLC.

Among the many interviewees who appear in the film, familiar names to those who follow the issue, are Yoshiko Sakurai, Mio Sugita, Yoshiaki Yoshimi, Koichi Nakano, Kent Gilbert, Tony Marano, Nobukatsu Fujioka, Mina Watanabe, Setsu Kobayashi, Hirofumi Hayashi. Still, one attendee was critical about the “lack of balance” between the film’s talking heads. “You interviewed a lot of scholars who support the comfort women,” he said, “but you didn’t interview many on the other side. Obviously, you knew Prof. Ikuhiko Hata. Did he decline to be interviewed? Do you know Tsutomu Nishioka, a leading professor? I spoke to him and he said that you never approached him.”

(Hata is a historian and retired professor of international relations who has written about the comfort women. Nishioka is a Korean studies professor at International Christian University who has also written extensively about comfort women.)

Responded Dezaki, “One of the first persons we wanted for the film was Professor Hata. The problem was that he asked us first to interview Prof. [Etsuro] Totsuka and Prof. [Yoshiaki] Yoshimi, so that he could respond to them. So once we did that, we went back to him. He said, ‘Please write a proposal.’ So we wrote a proposal for him. I talked with him on the phone once after that. He said, ‘Call back.’ I called back and his wife answered. She said, ‘Please call back in the evening.’ As an American, I don’t think it’s polite to call people in the evening about work. So I called back the next day, and he was very upset that I didn’t call him in the evening. Because of that, he didn’t want to be interviewed.

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“As for Tsutomu Nishioka, I was planning on interviewing him towards the end. But when I was reading the materials he’d written online, I noticed that a lot of things he said were very similar to many of the things that had already by said by many of the people I’d interviewed before. I didn’t feel like I needed that footage again.”

Shusenjo had its world premiere, aptly, at the 2018 Busan International Film Festival. Asked how it was received in South Korea, Dezaki said, “The response was interesting. I do criticize the comfort women supporters to some extent [in the film]. I don’t think they felt totally comfortable with the film. But one of the comments I got, from a young Korean woman, was that she was surprised so many Japanese people supported the comfort women. For her, this was a kind of Japan-Korea battle, but [now] she realized it was more of a human rights issue. I think that shows how biased the media are not only in Japan but also in Korea on this issue.” 

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Calling the film “powerful and important,” another attendee asked where Dezaki had procured the rare historical footage of Korean comfort women that is used sparingly in the film. Said the director, “I got it from my South Korean associate producer, who got it from Korea’s MBC Broadcasting. I didn’t use too many testimonies in the film [because] there are many films already with extensive footage of the comfort women’s testimonies.”

The Glendale and San Francisco statue-placement disputes are included in the film, and Dezaki was asked what he thought the US position was. He responded, “I don’t think they necessarily care about this issue that much, but they know it’s a big sticking point between the two allies, [so] whatever they can do to bring the allies closer. With the [2015 agreement between Japan and South Korea], I think they felt it was finally something that could be resolved. Prior to that, they had the House Resolution 121 that was demanding that Japan apologize for this. The [2015] agreement was kind of a shock to a lot of people in Korea who support the comfort women. The American government sort of flipped on this issue and I think it’s probably because they don’t care much about it.”

“What do you think it would take for the Japanese government to do to satisfy those Koreans who are most invested in the issue?” asked another audience member. Said Dezaki, “I really don’t want to speak for them, but what I oftentimes hear from them is that they would like this to be taught in schools and they would like a Diet resolution passed, similar to what [then-President] Reagan did. It seems that they don’t care about the [reparations] money so much, from what I understand. I think for them it’s more about passing on that history.”

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Dezaki was asked why he’d relied on his “own research and analysis, rather than interviews,” in the section of Shusenjo that explores the position of the Abe Administration vis-à-vis the comfort women. Admitting that he had used the narration mainly to pick up the flagging pace, the director answered: “This is a film on the comfort women issue, but in the opening, I ask why the revisionists, or the so-called denialists, want to censor or silence the issue. That’s the overarching theme of the film. What led me there was realizing that there was this connection. The question for me was why do they care about this so much? Why was the Japanese government sending an amicus brief for the Glendale statue trial? That’s a pretty big thing for a government to do for a small trial. I went down that path and tried to find the answer.”

Finally, the filmmaker was asked whether the government had asked for a special viewing of the film. “I would love for the Abe Administration to see the film, that would be great” said Dezaki. “I don’t know if they want to. I can’t go into too much detail, since I don’t want to get anyone in trouble, but when I was in Europe showing the film at a private [university] screening, the Japanese consulate in that city contacted the professor and said, ‘Why are you showing this film? Please come to the consulate to talk about this.’ So I guess it’s on their radar to some extent.”

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Selected Media Exposure

 


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Selected Media Exposure

 


HIS LOST NAME (Yoake)


January 15, 2019
Q&A guest: Director Nanako Hirose


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Nanako Hirose makes her first appearance at FCCJ.  ©Koichi Mori 

There’s nothing quite like being called the protégé of a beloved Cannes Palme d’Or-winning director to attract interest in your own directorial debut.

But while she must be feeling intense pressure from all the attention, Nanako Hirose displays the equanimity of a veteran. As she told the FCCJ audience following the sneak preview screening of her first feature, His Lost Name, “I’ve been watching Mr. (Hirokazu) Kore-eda work up close for a very long time, so I have to admit that his work is at the core of my own. I’m very grateful to him for allowing me to make my feature debut with this film, but I look at this as my declaration of independence, as my becoming a filmmaker in my own right.” 

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©Koichi Mori

Hirose had joined Bunbuku, the production company run by Kore-eda and Miwa Nishikawa, in 2011, after graduating from Musashino Art University. Over the next seven years, she worked as a director’s assistant on Kore-eda’s TV series Going Home (2012), as well as his films Like Father, Like Son (2013), Our Little Sister (2015) and After the Storm (2016). She also served in the same capacity on Nishikawa’s The Long Excuse (2016).

Kore-eda and Nishikawa are credited with providing “development supervision” for His Lost Name, and when queried about the meaning of that, Hirose said, “Bunbuku is essentially a collective, and its mission is to discover and [nurture] new talent. We can propose a film project, and if it’s accepted, Mr. Kore-eda and Ms. Nishikawa will participate in and oversee the project. I started writing the script in the summer of 2016, and we went into production about 18 months later, shooting for about a month.”

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Kaoru Kobayashi rescues Yuya Yagira... or is it the other way around? 
©2019 "His Lost Name" Production Committee

Like her mentor, Hirose takes her time telling her story in His Lost Name. As the camera gently observes their quotidian rituals, her characters grapple with unanswerable questions, and only gradually are the mysteries at the heart of her deeply moving film revealed.

As it opens, a young man grieves on a bridge, but we are spared his ensuing act of desperation. Discovered and rescued from the riverbank by taciturn widower Tetsuro (Kaoru Kobayashi of Midnight Diner), the young man (Yuya Yagira, Destruction Babies) is clearly torn between fleeing and staying. “Stay until you feel better,” suggests the older man, who seems to have an innate understanding of the youth’s anguish, and perhaps other reasons for the generous gesture. 

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 ©2019 "His Lost Name" Production Committee

Later, he asks his name. “Shinichi Yoshida,” says the youth, hesitantly admitting that he’s “doing a little soul-searching,” and that he had been in the rural town “a long time ago.” Tetsuro assures him it’s none of his business, and that Shinichi must follow his own path to answers. But he immediately takes him under his wing, giving him a place to stay, teaching him carpentry skills in his woodworking shop and including him in get-togethers with his friendly coworkers and his younger fiancée.

In Hirose’s unhurried style, a lot goes unsaid. It is some time before we realize that “Shinichi” is also the name of Tetsuro’s dead son, and nearly half-way through the film before we are given even a hint of what dark secret is haunting the youth. When he finally breaks down and confesses, he unleashes the older man’s own feelings of guilt, regret and crippling self-doubt. Eventually, the relationship will begin to unravel as Tetsuro’s over-eager acceptance and Shinichi’s past incites the suspicions of those around them.

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In brief remarks before the screening, Hirose had told the audience, “I will be pleased if you find similarities with Mr. Kore-eda’s work in this film, but I hope you'll also find differences.”

Pressed afterward to discuss how she had dealt with the comparisons that would inevitably be made, she said, “I was aware of the need to differentiate my work from Mr. Kore-eda’s and Ms. Nishikawa’s. I put a lot of thought into two points in particular: first, I didn’t want to spell out my intentions with words, or to rely on the dialogue too much. Second, I wanted to have the camera mirror the viewpoints of the characters.”

Elaborating on her approach to the film’s cinematography, Hirose explained that the film begins with the camera shooting from behind the characters, and then, “towards the middle, it starts shooting from in front of the characters, so it’s no longer pushing or chasing from behind, but rather pulling. I wanted this to reflect how we see the characters change. When we first see the protagonist, played by Mr. Yagira, we don’t know what he’s all about. He’s hard to read. I wanted to emphasize that. But as the story progresses, we start to understand him in a way, whereas the character played by Mr. Kobayashi starts out as a very friendly character, someone we can empathize with. But as the story progresses, it’s increasingly hard to figure him out, and we see the sort of madness that’s in him.” 

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©2019 "His Lost Name" Production Committee

Hirose was asked whether she’d had any hesitations about casting Yagira, given that he had won the Best Actor award at Cannes for Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows when he was just 14. She responded, “Mr. Kobayashi was the first character that was cast. We had trouble deciding who should play the protagonist. We discussed Mr. Yagira at a very early stage, but as we all know, Mr. Kore-eda gave birth to his career, in a sense. So I felt a certain pressure about including him. I wasn’t initially sure about casting him.

“But [while writing the script] I ran into problems moving forward with the character, because he’s such a passive character. It was hard pushing him along. Then I discovered that if I imagined Mr. Yagira in the role, I could progress smoothly with the script. So we realized we had no choice but to cast him in the film.”

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©Koichi Mori

Asked about the casting of Young Dais, a rapper and film star who plays Daisuke, one of Shinichi’s colleagues at the woodworking shop, Hirose explained, “I cast him because I wanted a sense of danger and creepiness to the character. On the surface, he’s very nice and kind, but there’s an apprehension that comes with that. When someone’s too kind or says words that are overly kind, I’m always apprehensive. In the face of obsequiousness, I think our dark sides come out. It’s intentional that all the adults around Shinichi in the film are very kind. I think that’s reflective of contemporary Japan, and it homes in on the discomfort the younger generation feels.”

In response to a question about the film’s English title, the director said, “The Japanese title, Yoake, means dawn. The process that the protagonist goes through in the film is like walking through a dark tunnel, and the title reflects the hope that he will see the light of dawn. I really like the Japanese title, but when we discussed the English title for international sales, it seemed that a straight translation of the Japanese wouldn’t be specific enough. So we ultimately decided on His Lost Name because I thought it would be a good way to pull the audience in. Although it doesn’t reveal much, it has a hint of suspense to it, and I thought it was an accessible title.” 

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The film’s soundtrack is driven by a moodily melancholy score, written by American singer-songwriter Tara Jane O’Neil, not the most obvious choice for a Japanese filmmaker — but one that beautifully underscores Shinichi’s out-of-placeness. Said Hirose, “Since the film takes place in a rural area and is quite claustrophobic, I wanted to use music that was a little more free-spirited, let’s say. I initially wanted to use something like Nordic post-rock, but we couldn’t imagine which musicians we would be able to use.

“One of the producers, Eiji Kitahara, who’s my senior colleague at Bunbuku, knows a lot about music and has this very eclectic taste. One day he said, ‘Nanako, we’re going to a live gig tonight,’ and we went to Shibuya and saw Tara Jane O’Neil. It just happened to be the last day of her Japan tour. I thought her music was wonderful, and a really good match for the visuals I was imagining for the film. It had this expansiveness to it. So we went to discuss the soundtrack with her after the concert. She said okay right away, and that’s how the collaboration came about.”

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 ©Koichi Mori

The Q&A session revealed that viewers had been interpreting the final scene of His Lost Name in different ways, and that their understanding could be attributed to neither national or generational backgrounds. Reporting what Hirose’s intention would involve a spoiler, so suffice to say that she did not intend to suggest an open interpretation. That the film’s ending creates ambiguity, opening the door to viewer discussion, is an accomplishment for a first-time filmmaker — and a tribute to the mentoring of Hirokazu Kore-eda and Miwa Nishikawa.

His Lost Name world-premiered at the Busan Film Festival in October 2018, won a Special Mention from the international jury at November’s Tokyo Filmex, and has just been included in the competition lineup of the Vesoul International Film Festival of Asian Cinema. It’s sure to have long legs.

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©2019"His Lost Name" Production Committee

Selected Media Exposure

THE LEGEND OF THE STARDUST BROTHERS


THE LEGEND OF THE STARDUST BROTHERS:
Director’s Cut
(Hoshikuzu Kyodai no Densetsu)


December 13, 2018
Q&A guest: Director Macoto Tezka


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Makoto Tezka charmed the audience instantly with a story of gratitude for the foreign press.  ©Mance Thompson

Macoto Tezka’s business card identifies him, simply and elegantly, as “Visualist.”

As the FCCJ audience discovered, he is also many other things — prominent among them, “Master Storyteller.”

Tezka was at the club for a Q&A session following a special screening of his 1985 directorial debut, The Legend of the Stardust Brothers, released in Japan (and sadly, nowhere else), 33 years ago. The film has now been impressively remastered and given English subtitles by UK distributor Third Window Films, and the Film Committee was hosting the first-ever Japan screening of the English-subbed director’s cut. (In fact, FCCJ’s audience was only the fourth in the world to see the new version, following its October premiere at the Sitges Film Festival in Spain, and showings at the Hawaii International Film Festival and the Santa Barbara Film Festival.)

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The film's star-crossed siblings. ©Kinema Junpo DD

“I was just 23 years old when I made The Legend of the Stardust Brothers,” Tezka explained. “It was my commercial film debut and while it seems I was able to please audiences, I did not please the critics. Many of them said the budget was too low, the acting was crappy and it was just a cheap film. But then I met a foreign journalist who had come to Japan to view work by emerging filmmakers.

“Because I’d been so harshly criticized by Japanese critics, I found myself trying to explain that I was still young, I hadn’t mastered the technique, I didn’t have a big budget, my cast were all novices. She replied, ‘Yes, I can see that. But even the most celebrated filmmaker has to start somewhere. It’s not about the budget or the technique, it’s about what you want to express to the audience. That was very clear to me — I got it, I think it’s good and I recognize [your talent].’

“Her words saved me, and gave me the courage to continue making films” Tezka concluded. “So I’ve always been really grateful for foreign journalists."

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It’s hard to imagine Tezka not rallying, even without the critical approval. Born the son of legendary manga artist Osamu Tezuka, he had already made a number of experimental 8mm films as a student, and earned praise from the likes of renowned director Nagisa Oshima. Then he met musician, composer, producer, critic and radio-TV personality Haruo Chikada, who had written a soundtrack to a nonexistent movie called The Legend of the Stardust Brothers.

“The film started with the music,” Tezka recalled. “Mr. Chikada brought the album to me to make a film out of. I wrote the screenplay to match all the songs, and he added more songs as we made the film. He’s a very talented composer, and it was a real collaboration between us.”

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Singing star Kiyohiko Ozaki plays the brothers' manager. ©Kinema Junpo DD

A zany pop musical with minimal dialogue, The Stardust Brothers follows a familiar storyline about the youthful thirst for fame and the exploitation of talent, as “lucky, sexy twins” Shingo (Shingo Kubota) and Kan (Kan Takagi) get their first break via shady Atomic Promotion President Minami (Kiyohiko Ozaki). They also get their first fan club president, Marimo (Kyoko Togawa), their first hit record and their first magazine covers. But it isn’t long before they realize that “Once you become No. 1, you sing the same song again and again forever.”

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Shingo, Kan and Fan Club President Marimo. ©Kinema Junpo DD

Soon, the band has personal problems and their brand image is tarnished. Minami, meanwhile, is seduced by a briefcase of cash to make a star of Kaoru (the Bowie-esque Issay), the son of a very powerful figure whose identity, when revealed, feels like a strikingly contemporary reference.

A time capsule of inspirations, the film draws from the likes of A Hard Day’s Night, The Night of the Living Dead, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Phantom of the Paradise (Tezka dedicates the film to its protagonist, Winslow Leach), with dashes of animation, the Village People, Klaus Nomi, George Michael (ca. Wham!) and Las Vegas revues thrown in.

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 ©Mance Thompson

Endlessly innocent and kinetic in the way of vintage music videos, as well as hugely enjoyable, there are echoes, homages and pastiches from pop history, and juicy roles for some of Japan’s most interesting creators of the time, including musicians Kiyohiko Ozaki, Issay, Sunplaza Nakano and Hiroshi Takano; and cameos by mangaka Monkey Punch (“Lupin the 3rd”), Shinji Nagashima (“Hana Ichi Monme”), Yosuke Takahashi (“Mugen Shinsi”); and even emerging film director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Tokyo Sonata).

Tezka was asked how he was able to attract talent like singer-actor Ozaki, who was then a household name. “Being young means being foolish,” he laughed. “When you’re young, you don’t know what real fear is. So we boldly approached all these people. Mr. Chikada was already quite famous and established as a musician, and he’d appeared on TV many times. So I’m sure Mr. Ozaki knew about him. Also, Mr. Oshima had talked about my films to many distribution companies, and I’m quite sure Mr. Ozaki had heard about those, too. But unexpectedly, when he showed up on set, he told me, ‘I’m not an actor. I don't know how to act.’ Of course he’d appeared in numerous films by that time, but he still thought of himself only as a singer.”

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A dash of Busby Berkeley.  ©Kinema Junpo DD

The director then offered one of the juiciest casting antidotes an FCCJ audience has ever heard. (SPOILER ALERT) “There’s a scene in which an actor appears in Hitler makeup,” he began. “We had first approached Toshiro Mifune to play the part. He agreed to do it, but he also said that if we used 1 second of footage, it would cost ¥1 million. We didn’t have the money in the budget, so we had to give up on that idea. We learned the hard way that if you want big names, it will cost big money.

“So we adopted a different approach and decided to go after non-actors. Our next idea was Akira Kurosawa. But he said he couldn’t make it, because he was in the middle of directing Ran. So we went to Nagisa Oshima. He was also in the middle of a shoot. So we tried yet another approach: how about a big artist? We went to Taro Okamoto, famous for his Tower of the Sun. He actually said okay, and we were elated, imagining the chair swiveling around and revealing it was Taro Okamoto. But after we’d told him details of the scene he would appear in, he said, ‘I don’t like politicians and I do not want to play one.’”

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A critic wondered whether Kentucky Fried Movie had been one of Tezka’s inspirations. “When we were working on the film, Mr. Chikada and I discussed a lot of rock musicals and cult movies,” the director responded. “But it was such a simple story, about these two boys and their stairway to stardom. What I had in mind were films by Richard Lester, like A Hard Day’s Night, and Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, and there are also some Monty Python references.”

Asked about the intriguing animated interlude in the film, Tezka said, “I wanted to include that fantastical sequence, that hallucination in which the protagonist turns into an animated figure. I ultimately asked Yosuke Takahashi, a young manga creator back then, because I was a big fan of his work. I could have gone to my father’s company, but it would have cost us a lot of money that we simply didn't have.”

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In 2016, marking the 30th anniversary of The Legend of the Stardust Brothers, Tezka created a sequel/remake to the original film. He recalled, “It all started with a discussion about doing a live concert to commemorate the anniversary. One of the original musicians said he would bring in sponsors, and suggested that we make a new film. I told him, ‘If you can get the funding, I’ll make the film.’

“After we went ahead with the production, the musician came back and told me the sponsors had pulled out. Normally, in a case like that, you would just pull the plug. But we’d already assembled the cast and crew, and I’d always had this sense that I hadn’t done as well as I could have with the first one. So I wanted to give it another go.

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“I submitted the film you saw tonight to the very first Tokyo International Film Festival in 1985, and it was turned down. The Brand New Legend of the Stardust Brothers, however, was screened in the 2016 Tokyo International Film Festival, so I’m quite satisfied with how things turned out.”

Following further international festival play, Macoto Tezka’s original The Legend of the Stardust Brothers is set to be released on BD/DVD in March 2019.

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©Kinema Junpo DD

Selected Media Exposure


JAM (jam)


November 30, 2018
Q&A guests: Director Sabu and actor/co-producer Shintaro Akiyama


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Sabu and Jam's co-producer, Shintaro Akiyama, appeared the night before their film opened in Japan.  ©FCCJ

It is not essential to know everything — or even much at all — about LDH Pictures before watching Sabu’s new film, Jam. But for those of us who became ardent followers of Japanese indie film after discovering his hilariously dark, high-speed, genre-blending comedies in the 1990s, it comes as a bit of a jolt to hear that the heralded director is now one of them.

“Them” is LDH World, a powerful artist management agency and related empire spanning music, dance, theater and most recently, films. Under the leadership of Chief Creative Officer Exile Hiro (ne Hiroyuki Igarashi), the firm launched LDH Pictures in 2016 and began actively producing and distributing films featuring its huge stable of talent. Its contract with Sabu assures that one of Japan’s most distinctive auteurs will continue to be funded and reach appreciative audiences, many of whom are overseas, with his work.

Sabu has been feted with awards and retrospectives around the world since his 1996 feature debut, Dangan Runner, which established his uniquely kinetic, blackly humorous style. He has continued to explore themes of fate and faith, guilt and retribution, coincidence and karmic payback in such films as Postman Blues (1997), The Blessing Bell (2002), Miss Zombie (2013) and Chasuke's Journey (2015); but like all singular filmmakers, he has had to contend with increasing budget challenges and a shrinking theatrical marketplace.

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LDH manages the enormously popular Exile performing group, many of whom appear in Jam. Sabu had first worked with Exile star Sho Aoyagi on his 2017 film Mr. Long, and as he told the FCCJ audience, “[At that time] I had several discussions with LDH about projects that we wanted to do together, but they didn’t come to fruition. In the meantime, they asked me to come up with some ideas for a film featuring Mr. Aoyagi and other members of the Exile group, and that’s how this came about.”

Jam co-producer Shintaro Akiyama, who also plays the role of a friendly-but-dimwitted thug in the film, explained, “It all started with my boss, the executive producer of this film, Hiro. He very passionately approached Sabu to sign with LDH.”

Demonstrating impressive English skills, Akiyama briefly outlined LDH World’s global ambitions, with new branches and training schools now running in Asia, Europe and the US. Among other milestones, he noted, “Our actors and artists are branching out overseas, and one of them, Naoki, will be starring in a Netflix Hollywood movie. I look forward to starring in my own Hollywood film soon.”

(Exile members often use first names only. “Naoki” is Naoki Kobayashi, who appeared at FCCJ in 2017 with the very first LDH Pictures film, Tatara Samurai. He moved to Los Angeles shortly afterward, and stars in Wash Westmoreland’s 2019 Earthquake Bird with Alicia Vikander and Riley Keough.) 

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Akiyama appeared in the first-ever Exile stage production in 2007, and is now co-producing as well as
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The LDH focus prompted one audience member to ask whether Sabu still had the freedom to make films on his own terms. “My contract allows me to do as I please,” Sabu reassured him. “The only stipulation is to use LDH artists whenever possible. I don’t feel restricted in any way, and I haven’t been told to focus on certain genres. They also haven’t asked me to target the Japanese market — on the contrary, they want to make films that will appeal to international film festivals and overseas markets.”

Jam is precisely that type of film. A bittersweet confection in which three lives collide and converge after random chance and a series of fateful encounters, it eventually erupts into one of Sabu’s trademark foot chases, made even more mirthful by the addition of drone shots.

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Hiroshi (Sho Aoyagi, almost too convincing in his role) is a jaded, small-time enka singer who holds “Talk to Me” sessions after each of his shows, building a real-world fan base that would normally spring up spontaneously on social media. “These events are essential to going global,” he tells the middle-aged women who flock to his shows. Meeting personally with them seems to work, though: he has a huge following of ardent admirers, each vying to know more about him and his work than the next.

After a series of “secret live” gigs at the Oldies but Goodies Jukebox bar, two of Hiroshi’s fans get into a contretemps over the order of his set list, one suggesting that he should swap one song for another that is more upbeat; and the other defending Hiroshi’s artistry. “Real fans should respect his song choice,” she insists.

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The marvelous Mariko Tsutsui is Hiroshi's No. 1 fan. ©2018"jam"Production Committee

This real fan, Masako (Mariko Tsutsui, of Harmonium, relishing the part), waits for Hiroshi after the show and assures him, “I won’t let anyone denigrate your art.” She then does the only logical thing: drugs and kidnaps him. She gets unexpected help from a friendly young man with a car, Takeru (Keita Machida), who offers to drive them home. What ensues is every obsessed fan’s dream, and every celebrity’s nightmare.

Takeru, meanwhile, goes on to the hospital where his girlfriend is in a coma, and reports that he’s done two more good deeds that day. The young woman took a bullet in crossfire as armed robbers were chased by the police. God then told Takeru that she will regain consciousness if he does good deeds, and so he does.

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Akiyama credits LDH boss Hiro with bringing Sabu onboard. ©Koichi Mori

On the same evening, Tetsuo (Nobuyuki Suzuki) is released from prison and immediately goes after the yakuza gang who had him sent up. With impressive fighting skills, a lethal pickaxe and apparent immortality, he fells dozens of them, even when he’s pushing his dementia-stricken grandmother to the train station in a wheelchair to meet her (deceased) husband.

Responding to a question about how much Sho Aoyagi’s own life might have shaped his character in the film, Sabu said, “I created the character of Hiroshi before I had any discussions with Mr. Aoyagi. He usually wears a bit of stubble, which I think makes him look a lot like an enka singer. When we were walking on the red carpet at the Berlin International Film Festival for Mr. Long, he had on this tuxedo that really gave him an enka vibe. That’s how the character came to me. Also, Mr. Aoyagi is very popular with older women.”

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Akiyama sported blonde hair to play a friendly thug in the film. ©2018"jam"Production Committee

He expanded, “I decided to make him an enka singer because enka fans happen to be women of a certain age. There aren’t that many films out there with a lot of older women in them. Enka is like country music in the West, and although this is true of other musical genres as well, I find the phenomena of fandom to be quite interesting — this psychology of the fan who thinks s/he can listen to a song and believe it was written just for them.”

Sabu enjoyed creating the character so much that he even wrote the lyrics for Hiroshi’s songs, as well as working with composer Junichi Matsumoto on the music. One critic noted that she could just imagine Hiroshi appearing on the popular year-end NHK-TV singing contest "Kohaku Uta Gassen/Red and White," and asked whether Sabu planned to release a CD of the music.

Sounding like a true producer, Akiyama said, “That’s a very good idea. But I’ll have to consult with Mr. Aoyagi and our company.” Added Sabu, “I had hoped to debut the character of Hiroshi [as a new singer], but unfortunately that hasn’t happened yet.” (It’s never too late — just look at Spinal Tap!)

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The director was asked whether Stephen King’s Misery, adapted into Rob Reiner’s superlative film, had influenced the Hiroshi-Masako storyline. Sabu concurred that he’d been reminded of the story while writing. “I had that kind of heavy character in mind at first” for the No. 1 fan, “a little heavier than she ended up being in the film,” he said. “I ultimately decided to not go in that direction, because I wanted to suggest that they could actually be a couple, that it’s not so strange to imagine. That’s why I offered the role to Ms. Tsutsui, because she’s an amazing, amazing actress. She did it so wonderfully, bringing so many different facets to the character. She can be so charming and yet so scary. If I’d gone with a character like in Misery, it would’ve been more of a horror film.”

The Japanese flier features a prominent image of a jar of jam, and a film critic asked Sabu just what the title refers to, since jam “can mean the stuff you spread on bread, or that you’re in a fix, and also musicians improvising on stage.” The director responded, “Yes, it means all those things. That’s spot on.” He laughed and then said, “I’ll share the backstory with you. In 2017 I was with my family in Victoria, Canada and we just happened to visit a café called Jam. The food was really great, and my wife said, ‘You should call your film Jam.’ And so I did.”

The critic also asked about the classic car that Takeru drives in the film. “I couldn’t take my eyes off it,” he enthused. As it turns out, it wasn’t such a trivial question. Sabu explained, “I wanted the car to have a classic feel, and I wanted Takeru to have a backstory. The backstory could be that he’s actually quite affluent, so I imagined him choosing a vintage auto, a classy classic. The interiors are classier, too, with leather seats. Modern cars aren’t interesting — they’re round and boring.” And then the aha! moment: “Also, the car is important because we’re hoping to make a couple of sequels to the film.” 

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The director had done his post-production in Germany, and he was asked whether that was because he felt a foreign post-production crew might lend the film a different flavor. Noted Sabu, “I’ve had a longtime relationship with [Germany’s] Rapid Eye Movies. They funded three of my earlier works. I find that it’s much better to do post-production overseas, especially when it comes to color grading and sound mixing. The post-production crews overseas have such craftsmanship, and such ownership of their work, so the quality is much better.”

Akiyama was asked the same question, and his response was something the majority of Japanese directors will sadly never hear. Said the co-producer, “The director made this request to do post-production overseas, and we supported him because we felt it would help bring an international sensibility to the film. It’s our company policy to respect the freedom of the creator, and since we are also looking to expand overseas, it’s very beneficial to have that kind of foreign influence. So we were really thankful that we could complete the film in that way.”

Although the international premiere of Sabu’s Jam has not yet been announced, one can imagine it will be appearing soon on German screens.

jam 2018jamProduction Committee
©2018"jam"Production Committee

Selected Media Exposure


KILLING (Zan)


November 7, 2018
Q&A guest: Director Shinya Tsukamoto


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Shinya Tsukamoto kicks off the screening series in FCCJ's new Marunouchi home.  ©FCCJ 

The Film Committee could not have imagined a better inaugural guest for FCCJ’s spacious new digs in Marunouchi: acclaimed writer-director-producer-cinematographer-editor-actor Shinya Tsukamoto.

Nearly three decades on from his 1989 cyberpunk masterpiece Tetsuo: The Iron Man, which hurtled him into international prominence, Tsukamoto has won dozens of awards but remains fiercely independent, creating high art on shoestring budgets, each film the impeccably crafted work of a singular visionary, from Tokyo Fist (1995), Bullet Ballet (1998) and A Snake of June (2002) to Kotoko (2011) and Fires on the Plain (2014, marking his last visit to FCCJ). 

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Mokunoshin, Ichisuke and Yu watch a sudden duel. ©SHINYA TSUKAMOTO/KAIJYU THEATER

An outspoken critic of the Abe Administration, the director continues his exploration of the moral implications of war in his new masterwork, Killing. Although it is his first jidaigeki period film, the parallels between his depiction of Japan’s bloody past and modern-day militarism cannot be ignored.

Killing is set in the mid-19th century, after 250 years of peace, a time when masterless samurai roam the countryside in search of work and sustenance. Young ronin Mokunoshin Tsuzuki (Sosuke Ikematsu, extraordinary in the role) is helping villagers prepare for the harvest, and has found a friend and sparring partner in Ichisuke (Ryusei Maeda), a farmer’s son. But word has spread about Commodore Perry’s demands and the black ships along the coast. As civil unrest builds in Edo, Mokunoshin knows that he must go there to “prove my worth.” Ichisuke’s sister Yu (Yu Aoi) silently watches the two men training, pining for Mokunoshin. “Will you die?” she later asks him. “No,” he answers, “I won’t.” 

Sosuke TsukamotoSHINYA TSUKAMOTOKAIJYU THEATER
Sawamura recruits the young ronin. ©SHINYA TSUKAMOTO/KAIJYU THEATER

When a more seasoned ronin, Jirozaemon Sawamura (Tsukamoto), observes the young man’s sword skills and tries to recruit him for an elite squad that will help “keep the peace” in the capital, Mokunoshin sees it as his duty to join him. But first, he must protect the farmers from a gang of brigands led by ruthless outlaw Sezaemon Genda (Tatsuya Nakamura). Despite promising “We only make trouble for people who deserve it,” they target the hot-headed Ichisuke. What starts as a bout of bullying soon escalates into an ongoing eruption of violence… and through it all, Mokunoshin cannot — or will not — raise his sword to kill.

Whether he is a “pacifist samurai,” as critics dubbed him following the world premiere of Killing in Competition at the Venice International Film Festival in August, remains ambiguous. Short, sharp and shocking though it is, the film is a complex creation, with layers that demand deeper contemplation. 

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Yu pines for Mokunoshin. His own intentions are never quite clear.
©SHINYA TSUKAMOTO/KAIJYU THEATER

As the director fielded wide-ranging questions following the FCCJ screening, the audience’s obvious enthusiasm for the film fueled Tsukamoto’s own passion for introspection — and gradually, the Q&A session grew nearly as long as Killing itself.

The emcee plunged right in, asking about the film’s seeming correlation between violence and sex. (Tsukamoto later tweeted that he “sat up straighter” when he heard it.) “Indeed, this is a very important factor in the film,” the director acknowledged. “Strangely enough, nobody has asked this question, so I’m very happy you did. Originally, we had a different version of the shooting script ready just before the shoot. That version focused on the samurai studying his sword, pondering the question of whether or not to kill. I thought something was lacking, so I reverted to an earlier version of the script that contained eroticism. Although one could question whether it’s appropriate to equate his dilemma of whether to kill with his sexual urge, I thought the story wouldn’t feel truthfully told without it.”

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The director discusses how painful even a small sword slash, like the one Sawamura sustains on his hand, can be. ©Koichi Mori

Noting that the three key battles in the film take place offscreen, an audience member asked whether that was a conscious choice or due to budgetary restrictions. “Although we were on a shoestring budget, it wasn’t because of that, it was a very intentional choice,” the director responded. “I wanted to touch on two themes: I wanted the film to be the antithesis of the heroism that we’re used to seeing in samurai films, and I also wanted Yu to represent all the peasants, the people like us. During World War II, the government told us we were winning, and we were all overjoyed, shouting ‘Banzai!’ We didn’t know what was really happening, all the gruesome details of the reality on the battlefields, where the faces and psyches of Japanese soldiers were being shredded. We [were victims of propaganda and] had no way of knowing.

“I wanted to depict the lack of knowledge about what’s happening on the frontlines. It’s only when violence is on our doorstep that we become aware of it. When Yu says, ‘I want you to avenge [her brother’s] death,’ she can say it because she doesn’t know what really happens when someone is sliced open by the blade of a sword. We see the violence drawing closer throughout the film, and I think this echoes what’s happening in everyday Japan. The people who fought in or witnessed World War II are dying away, and we’re gradually losing our sense of danger. I think that’s why we seem to be inching our way toward war. That’s the kind of intent that went into the omission of the battle scenes.” 

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Super-interpreter Mihoko Imai reacts to Tsukamoto's compliment about her abilities: "Wow, you're so lively!" ©Koichi Mori

He later admitted, “I’m an ardent fan of jidaigeki films and have great respect for [the genre], especially Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and Sanjuro. But I wanted to do something a little different this time around, and not focus on what we usually see, which is a kind of beauty of form… I didn’t want to glamorize the battle scenes, as you see done in other samurai films. I didn’t want to go too far, though. I didn’t want to make a jidaigeki film with no battle scenes, just as you wouldn’t want a Godzilla film in which Godzilla doesn’t appear.

“I was aware that, if you’re doing a jidaigeki, the audience expects sword fighting. So where I wanted to make the difference was how the story unfolds leading up to the battle scene. I had to find the balance between the archetypical samurai film and the atypical. The atypical portions should make you a bit uncomfortable and leave you with questions about [what it means].” 

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©FCCJ

Complimented on the film’s impressive performances, Tsukamoto was asked about his own, as the skilled swordsman Sawamura. How did he summon the heroic-but-murderous spirit needed? He responded, “My impression of the character when I was writing the script was quite different from my impression when I watched the film, which surprised me. We’re used to seeing samurai characters depicted as chivalrous and kind, and I wanted to pose a question about what they were really like. So you should see the antithesis of that in the film. But although I wrote him that way, when I saw him on film, he seemed very villainous, as if he were the cause of all the problems that occur.”

Another audience member complimented Tsukamoto on the “magnificent” sword-fighting scenes and the skill with which the actors wielded their swords, and asked how they’d prepared. “We had a tateshi, a sword-fighting action director, Mr. Tsujii, with whom I’d worked in the past, who gave us direction and advice,” the director responded. I wanted to ground the fighting sequences in reality, so I also sought the advice of a sensei at the Hokushin Ittoryu dojo about how to carry your body and how to sheathe and unsheathe the sword, as well as the principles behind the actions.

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Tsukamoto as Mifune as Sawamura. ©SHINYA TSUKAMOTO/KAIJYU THEATER

“Unfortunately, I sprained my lower back while we were shooting one of the sword fights, so for all the high aspirations I had for the battle scenes, I wasn’t able to do much myself… I’d hoped to be like Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo, where he was slicing and dicing these 10 opponents. I noticed he always carried his back [at the same height] from the ground, which really impressed me. I was really disappointed that I couldn’t do that.”

He joked that he was a better editor than an actor, since he’d had to improve his own fight scenes in the editing room. “I think the reason the sword-fighting sequences look like they’re exquisitely done is because Mr. Ikematsu is so good. He didn’t have much [fighting] experience before, but he’s like a sponge, a very quick learner, and he has great physicality. He elevated the level of [those sequences].”

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©FCCJ

He elaborated, “What I wanted to do with Mr. Ikematsu was to transport a modern-day youth back to the Edo period, and bring a sense of reality and rawness to the story. This reflects my influences, including an early formative experience for me, watching Kon Ichikawa’s Matatabi [aka The Wanderers]. That film also had young actors in a period piece that feels very modern.”

Renowned Iranian filmmaker Amir Naderi was in the audience, and asked how Tsukamoto always manages to direct such “fresh” performances from his female characters, in a way “unlike any other Japanese director.” He answered, “The way I work with actresses depends on the film, of course, but I think you can get the sense in my films that I really respect women, who are amazing… As you know, Ms. Aoi is an accomplished and versatile actress, so I didn’t really have to direct her much. Usually, she can detect the through-line quite easily, but she seemed to find it difficult with my script. So she decided to go at the role from diverse directions, almost as if we see her maturing from 15 to 28 years old, coming of age. It’s wonderful how she did that, and I think she’s marvelous.”

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Naderi greets Tsukamoto after the screening.  ©Mance Thompson

Naderi had also asked about Tsukamoto’s unique use of sound, “which is almost like music in the film.” The director responded, “I’ve collaborated with the sound designer since A Snake in June, and I think the sound is as important as the visuals. I wanted to make something that you couldn’t just watch objectively; I wanted to make an experiential film. I wanted audiences to feel the presence of nature, since it surrounds the characters, as well as the presence of the blades. They’re very heavy, which you can feel through the sound design.”

He continued, “I used Chu Ichikawa’s music in the film. We’d been collaborators for 30 years, starting with Tetsuo. We shot the film, and just as we started editing, he succumbed to a long-term illness and died. I didn’t have a desire to go to anyone else; I wanted to use his music. It was a rushed shoot (just 3 weeks), but the editing process was lengthy. I used parts of compositions he’d done over the past 30 years. With his wife’s permission, I went to his home and looked for unfinished pieces. It was a mourning process for me. I could collaborate with Mr. Ichikawa, event though he’s up in heaven, and I was able to hear music I hadn’t heard before.”

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 ©Mance Thompson

Calling Killing “one of the finest Japanese films of the past decade,” a critic asked whether Tsukamoto intended to make another trilogy, as he had with the Tetsuo films. “I had this idea of the ronin pondering [the moral implications of wielding] his sword 20 years ago,” said the director. “I was also entertaining the idea of having the protagonist duel with Zatoichi in part II. It would be wonderful to see Mr. Ikematsu doing battle with Zatoichi. I’m interested in the late Edo period, the Bakumatsu era. But there’s a jinx with films depicting that era, they’re usually not successful. I’d like to take up the challenge. I thought it would be interesting to have the guitarist Hotei portray (imperial loyalist) Ryoma Sakamoto, because he’s very, very tall and I think he would look good in hakama and boots, carrying a gun.”

Obviously relishing the image, he went on, “Of course I would then have to depict the Shinsengumi (who murdered Sakamoto), who were in reality a bunch of rowdy outlaw teenagers. Just talking about it makes me smile. I don’t want to strike out the possibility of doing that in the future. If saying it here helps to [get the project off the ground], all the better.”

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 ©Mance Thompson

Tsukamoto has had an active parallel career as an actor in a diversity of films by other filmmakers, including key roles in Martin Scorsese’s Silence and the Japanese blockbuster Shin Godzilla, both in 2016. He was asked whether his experience with Scorsese had left a lasting impact. “Of all the filmmakers alive today, Martin Scorsese is the one I respect the most, ever since I first saw Taxi Driver in high school,” he responded. “I play a Christian who dies for his beliefs in Silence, and I would say that my own religion is Scorsese. I think he’s influenced me in the way he leaves a lot of freedom for his actors. Although he’s so accomplished, he has a wonderful respect for his actors. I learned that from him, and I tried to do a little of that on this film.” 

Poster with twoSHINYA TSUKAMOTOKAIJYU THEATER
©SHINYA TSUKAMOTO/KAIJYU THEATER

Selected Media Exposure

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