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BOLT


BOLT


 December 2, 2020
Q&A guests: Director Kaizo Hayashi and star Shiro Sano


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Shiro Sano and Kaizo Hayashi have made 10 films together, and their enthusiasm hasn't diminished. ©FCCJ

The Film Committee’s final screening event of 2020 — our final screening event of the tumultuous 2010s, in fact — returned the audience to perhaps the decade’s biggest story, at least in Japan: the Fukushima disaster.

We had presented the big-budget Fukushima 50 at the beginning of the year, with stars Ken Watanabe and Koichi Sato on hand for the Q&A session. At the end of the year, we were privileged to provide a bookend of sorts with Bolt, the art-film version of similar events, and to welcome veteran director Kaizo Hayashi and star Shiro Sano for an illuminating Q&A.

(In a curious coincidence, Bolt features three of the actors who appear in Fukushima 50, Shiro Sano, Koichi Sato and Kazuhiko Kaneyama, although Bolt was completed several years earlier.)

BOLT-main Photo by JUMPEI TAINAKA
The first responders in Bolt. ©Photo by JUMPEI TAINAKA

The 3/11 tragedy at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant is never far from the news. Nearly 10 years after the triple meltdowns, there are still 7,000 people at the plant, working on the decommissioning work. In October, the Japanese government announced it would soon decide whether to release a huge quantity of treated water into the ocean so as to speed up the effort; and a November survey revealed that 65% of evacuees say they’re never going back.

While Fukushima 50 pays tribute to the first responders, there were 20,000 people on the site when the disasters hit. Hayashi brought together several celebrated collaborators to create a hauntingly beautiful tribute to one of those 20,000, a nameless character played by Masatoshi Nagase.

BOLT-05 Photo by JUMPEI TAINAKA
©Photo by JUMPEI TAINAKA

In the first of three episodes, which is based on a true story, the nameless man is an emergency worker at the plant on 3/11, leading a small team through a dangerously radioactive environment to fasten a bolt that will prevent contaminated water from leaking. In the second episode, set 2 years later, he is a cleanup technician clearing out houses in the evacuated zone. In the third, set in 2014, he is living and working in a Goodyear Tire garage. On a snowy night, a sports car crashes outside, and he rescues the driver. She bears a striking resemblance to his wife, who was swept away in the 3/11 tsunami…

Arguably the most visually and aurally ravishing work of art related to the Fukushima disasters, Bolt calls to mind the films of David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Lost Highway) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (City of Lost Children). Rooted in reality but impressionistic in its dreamlike imagery, Bolt evokes the physical, emotional and spiritual tolls of a tragedy that continues to cripple the nation.

BOLT-03 Photo by JUMPEI TAINAKA
©Photo by JUMPEI TAINAKA

Kicking off the Q&A session, film critic Mark Schilling remarked, “Fukushima 50 is somewhat similar in theme to the first part of your film, and I came into this thinking, ‘How can he do this differently?’ That film had a lot of resources that maybe you didn’t. But I saw this and realized that you’re not just talking about Fukushima; you’re talking about something bigger. And to do that, you’ve used genre. The first part is action, the second part is like a docudrama, the third part is sort of noir, but also like Kwaidan, a ghost story. How did you conceive of using those genres to reflect your themes?”

Hayashi replied, “The film is realistic in a sense; it’s [inspired by] what really happened. As is the case with Fukushima 50, we’re dealing with real issues here. But the way I see storytelling is that there’s always a fantasy element in it, there’s always a bigger, broader message when you tell stories. It was my intention to use genre, or various genre tropes, to tell a story that’s bigger than what actually happened. Meaning, that it touches on broader subjects. Meaning, where is mankind headed and how we do make amends with the mistakes that we’ve made?”

Film critic James Hadfield, noting that Bolt has “references to ghosts and hints of the divine,” asked the director about the spirituality in the film. “I felt you were suggesting that maybe through nuclear energy, people had unleashed something that was beyond their understanding. Can you tell us about that?

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©FCCJ

Hayashi responded immediately and tellingly, in English: “Yes. I agree with you. It’s very dangerous. We’ve touched Pandora’s box already. Many countries are the same, but Japan is the most dangerous. Other countries have now stopped the operation of nuclear plants. In Japan, with Fukushima, the box is opened. We can never close it. Why does someone want to open it again? It’s too dangerous. That’s my message to humans.”

Mentioning that two reactors have recently restarted in Japan, one audience member asked the director whether he thought art and cinema could effect change. Said Hayashi, “One of the characters in Bolt is asked what he’s planning to do, going forward, and he answers, ‘I have no other choice but to continue, to live.’ As a filmmaker, I think that’s our plight. To live, for creators and artists, is to continue making art. That’s the only way that we can arrive at ‘the light.’ I don’t look at it as resistance, but rather, the only way to go forward.”

Bolt had a rather unique production history. Asked to clarify the process, Hayashi explained, “The first episode I shot was the last episode you saw, Good Year. The idea was to release it as a short film. I didn’t have any plans to shoot other episodes. I shot the second chapter, Life, (two years) later, and went to the 20km evacuation zone three times in order to do that. Then I realized that I should shoot the first episode you saw, Bolt.

FCCJ BOLT Koichi Mori-20
©Koichi Mori

“I was talking to (artist) Kenji Yanobe, who became the production designer for the film, and we decided to shoot it on a set that he was creating inside the Takamatsu Art Museum (in Kyushu). I knew, of course, that we were going to have to spend a lot of money on that episode because of the set design. So Mr. Yanobe said that he would shoulder the costs if we made it as part of his exhibition at the Takamatsu museum.”

In a first for Japan, the episode was shot during regular museum hours, and the exhibition was the museum’s main attraction. Surely that presented enormous challenges for Hayashi and his team?

“We had visitors and patrons of the museum coming to watch while we were shooting,” the director said. “We didn’t want to bore them between takes, while we were doing the setups, so I would go out and explain to them what the next scene was about.

BOLT-02 Photo by JUMPEI TAINAKA
©Photo by JUMPEI TAINAKA

“When we shot the scene in the tunnel, the actors were inside the set. In order to show the visitors what was happening in there, we had a camera inside and connected a monitor to it so they could watch. We also prepared a little director’s chair in front of the set, and there was a kid who came every day and sat in that chair, watching our progress.” He laughed, “I’m sure he’s a director by now.”

Shiro Sano is a veteran stage actor, as well as one of Japan’s most prolific performers on screens large and small. Still, performing in the museum — in full Hazmat suits and helmets — must have been a little strange, no?

“It was a lot of fun to do, actually,” he said. “My first film with Mr. Hayashi, and my first leading role, was in To Sleep So As to Dream. The architecture, the buildings that were shown in the film, were a very important element of the visuals. I think you can say that they were almost characters themselves. The same was true with the art direction and production design on Bolt. They were as important a force as the actors. Shooting in the museum, with the set already there, made me very aware of the fact that as an actor, I’m only on a par with the design.

GOOD YEAR-02 Photo by YUMIKO OKABE
Masatoshi Nagase works on a gyroscope, one of Hayashi's favorite motifs. ©Photo by JUMPEI TAINAKA

“I’ve made some 10 films with Mr. Hayashi, and this one was the closest to the experience I had shooting To Sleep So As to Dream. I say that because first, we had the same cinematographer, Yuichi Nagata, who always works with Mr. Hayashi. Added to that was the fact that there wasn’t a lot of dialog, which was very much like the experience of To Sleep So As to Dream, which is almost entirely a silent film, although the stories are different.”

Bolt’s production was also unique for another reason, as an academic in FCCJ’s audience pointed out. She asked about the schools that were listed in the credits. “We used professional actors, and the production designer, DP and sound department were all professionals, as well as myself,” explained Hayashi. “But we had about 25 students from the Tohoku University of Art and Design (where Hayashi is a professor), six graduate students from the Kyoto University of Art and Design and about 10 more students who were studying under Mr. Yanobe.

“We had each of them perform one task, after we gave them some quick training. We didn’t ask them to be assistants, but rather, to be completely responsible for their tasks. I discovered they were quite capable. I’d done the same thing with my previous film, Miroku, and it had gone quite well."

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Sano interjected, “There were also a few university students acting, but it was a thoroughly professional atmosphere on the set.”

Hayashi continued, “I think that films should be made by the younger generation. Of course Japanese film has a 120-year history, but when we go way back, we have filmmakers like Masahiro Makino, who was making films at the ripe old age of 16. It’s only appropriate that we have young people make films. On my films, I want to utilize their strength and just be an old man on the set.”

Sano, who’s well known as a connoisseur of ghost stories (he has appeared around the world in staged readings of Lafcadio Hearn works for the past decade), was asked whether Bolt might inspire him to create a new, Fukushima-themed tale. “I don’t have any plans, but I’m open to offers,” he said, looking pleased at the thought. “Through my readings of Lafcadio Hearn, I know that he also had experience with natural disasters, including the Ansei Great Earthquake, which led to the (1855) Tohoku tsunami.

LIFE-01 Photo by YUMIKO OKABE
©Photo by JUMPEI TAINAKA

“Right after 3/11, I started to perform Hearn’s A Living God (in which the term tsunami was used for the first time, in 1897). What he depicts in that story is not related to Fukushima, of course, but it teaches us a lot about natural disasters, about the decisions we make in the face of these disasters and how we live, going forward. I wouldn’t equate Hearn’s natural disasters with Fukushima, which was partially a manmade disaster, but I think there’s a lot of wisdom in terms of how to react to such situations.”

Loath to see such an enlightening Q&A session end on such a somber note, a Japanese film critic asked what many others surely had on their minds: “Seeing you two together on stage, I wonder if we can expect a new detective story soon?”

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©Koichi Mori

The reference was to Hayashi’s 1986 directorial debut, To Sleep So As to Dream, made when he was just 29. Championed by the late, great film historian (and FCCJ mainstay) Donald Richie, who had done the subtitles, the film had earned Hayashi international acclaim, domestic awards and enduring cult status. It had also launched his long collaboration with Sano, whose role in the film as an egg-addicted, brain-addled detective, is thoroughly unforgettable.

The men smiled and nodded, nearly in unison. Said Hayashi, “The character of Detective Jin Uotsuka is really interesting. At one point I was considering making To Sleep So As to Dream into a series.”

Said Sano, although it’s unclear whether he was being serious, “After seeing the digitally remastered version*, I now really want to play the part of the butler, who’s an old man (in the original, he was played by 75-year-old Yoshio Yoshida). It doesn’t have to be a recreation, but if we could do a remake with [everyone aged], that would be interesting.”

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With the poster for Bolt.  ©FCCJ

Kaizo Hayashi nodded once again. “Let us think about it.”

*For those lucky enough to be in Japan, the digitally remastered To Sleep So As to Dream will be playing in theaters alongside Bolt. For those overseas, urge your local festivals to program both.

BOLTホスター  Lespace Vision Dream kid Kaizo production
© L'espace Vision, Dream kid, Kaizo production

Selected Media Exposure

TEZUKA'S BARBARA


TEZUKA'S BARBARA (Barubora)


 November 17, 2020
Q&A guest: Director Macoto Tezka


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Unable to make the trip to Italy, Macoto Tezka received the Fantafestival award virtually. ©FCCJ

The day after Tezuka’s Barbara received the Golden Bat for Best Film at the 40th Fantafestival in Rome, Macoto Tezka appeared at FCCJ to discuss his prizewinning work.

“This is the first award given to the film, and I’m really happy that it comes from a fantastic film festival,” he told the audience following a sneak preview screening. “It has a lot of fantastical elements in it, so it brings me great joy that it’s been so wonderfully received by film enthusiasts who have an eye for such films.”

The Fantafestival jury had cited Tezuka’s Barbara for its “representation of an outside-the-box love story” and for “transcending the supernatural genre with great visual impact, in which the refined photography of the master, Christopher Doyle, excels.”

Barbara - Main 2019 Barbara Film Committee
Barbara (Fumi Nikaido) and her latest rescue, Mikura (Goro Inagaki). ©
2019 Barbara Film Committee

Admitted Tezka, “I have an affinity for Italy. I received an award for Hakuchi: The Innocent at the Venice Film Festival (in 1999), and have received many invitations from other Italian festivals since then. It’s also an honor for me because Italy has given us so many great filmmakers and such influential aesthetics. I’m overjoyed that my film’s aesthetics and beauty have been recognized.”

Tezuka’s Barbara is the second film he has based on an original manga by his father, Japanese comics godfather Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion), but the first live-action adaptation. Planned in celebration of what would have been Tezuka’s 90th birthday, with support from producers in Japan, Germany and the UK, it refocuses the manga’s increasingly transgressive story on the love affair at its core, captured by Doyle (In the Mood for Love, They Say Nothing Stays the Same) in swooning retro-glam images, and driven by a jazzy soundtrack from frequent Tezka collaborator Ichiko Hashimoto.

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Mikura and a figment of his wayward imagination. ©2019 Barbara Film Committee

The elder Tezuka had serialized “Barbara,” a dark and sexually-charged tale about a famous author’s gradual descent into debauchery and eventual madness, from 1973-74. Loosely inspired by Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman, it was not only a satire on Japan’s literary and political establishments, but also a supernaturally-tinged exploration of the power of the authorial voice. 

Like the manga, Tezuka’s Barbara follows writer Yosuke Mikura (played by former SMAP superstar Goro Inagaki), who is at the pinnacle of success but whose crippling sexual perversions have rendered him creatively bankrupt. One night, he finds a young woman lying in a drunken stupor and, after she’s quoted French poetry to him, takes her home. Barbara (Fumi Nikaido) remains drunken and obnoxious, but her presence jolts him out of writer’s block and away from self-absorption. Once their relationship is consummated, however, harm begins to come to Mikura’s closest friends and his suspicion that she is a muse seems to be confirmed. And then she disappears.

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Mikura with his muse. ©2019 Barbara Film Committee

Why, Macoto Tezka was asked by one audience member, did he decide to update the story to the modern day? “Although it was written in the early 1970s, I had no intention of actually setting the story in the 70s,” he explained. “I felt it had a universal thread and wanted to place it in an unspecified time. The retro feeling of the manga is an important ingredient in the original, so I wanted to [maintain that]. What you see on the screen is contemporary Tokyo, but we’ve added the flavor of taking you back in time. The use of jazz music, which was prominent in the 1950s-60s, is an additional nuance that gives it a sense of déjà vu.”

Prodded for particulars about the autobiographical nature of the work, Tezka said, “We always hear that while he was writing this, my father was living through hard times as a [creator]. But of course, needless to say, artists always have a conflict in our hearts — that’s what it is to be a writer or an artist.

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©FCCJ

“The fact that the protagonist is a novelist comes naturally to me, since I was raised in that kind of environment, with people in that line of work very close to me. I think it was the same with my father — I don’t think he was trying to divulge his private life through his work. I think the profession of novelist is used as a metaphor. The conflict that we see is that of an artist who is bound by logic and words, but is also very aware of this world that is beyond logic or language.

“In psychology, this would be characterized as logos vs. eros. What you see in the film is a merging of the two. I took it as a challenge to include things that could be explained logically as well as to infuse the film with things that go beyond those boundaries.”

Tezka was asked “how faithful or how rebellious” he’d been with his father’s work. “I’ve read the manga tens of times, so it’s [part of me]. However, I didn’t want to be too attached to the original. There are many fantastical elements in the manga, and those are the ones I especially liked and wanted to include in the film. They were the scenes that were really joyful to make.

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One of the film's many fantastical scenes, with an unforgettable Eri Watanabe. ©2019 Barbara Film Committee

“The cast and crew were also fans of the manga, so that allowed me to not be too stubborn about my own vision for the film, since they had their own ideas about the work. I was like a spectator on set, watching how the actors created their characters and how the crew created the scenes. It was all very interesting, and all I had to do was bring all the elements together.”

As for working with screenwriter Hisako Kurosawa, “What I told her was that, although the manga comprises many themes and many characters, I wanted to trim it down to just the two main characters and not include any superfluous characters. Since the manga was written by a man and I’m also male, I wanted a female perspective. So I left her with a lot of freedom in writing the screenplay.”

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©FCCJ

One audience member, noting that Tezuka’s Barbara feels very international despite being so specifically Japanese, asked how the director had melded the two approaches. “Although the backdrop [of my father’s manga] is Japan,” Tezka responded, “it has a universality, an internationality to it. I had offers to develop it overseas, to create a film that was set elsewhere, including changing the setting to Prague. But I was more interested in setting it in Shinjuku, because I thought I would be able to shed light on aspects of the area that even the Japanese are unaware of.

“There are quintessentially Japanese facets to the story as well as to the behavior of the characters, and whatever I made was going to be quintessentially Japanese. But we used a [non-Japanese] cinematographer because I wanted to capture the wonderful, interesting aspects of Japan that we haven’t noticed.”

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©
Koichi Mori

With its story inspired by The Tales of Hoffman, and its references to the work of Nietzsche and Verlaine, a film historian asked, “Is it possible to make such a film in today’s Japan, given your strong artistic vision, without the support of German and UK distributors like Rapid Eye Movies and Third Window Films?

“I’m someone who thinks that even in Japanese filmmaking, we should be employing more international talent,” responded Tezka, “because in terms of mindset, technique and technology, things have gotten quite insular. Filmmakers have become complacent and smug. I think cinema is a very international thing, and it’s important to include diversity. When we look back at Japanese cultural history, we’ve always brought in and adopted various international elements.

“I think the support [of foreign distributors] in bringing Japanese [films] to an international audience, and to spreading awareness of what we do, is essential. In all my future work, I intend to continue teaming up with international talent to make Japanese films.”

Inevitably, Tezka was asked about the impact of Covid-19: “Considering the current situation, do you think the film takes on any new significance?”

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Tezka with his Italian award and the gorgeous Japanese poster. ©
FCCJ

He replied: “When I first considered adapting my father’s work, I saw the film as focusing on connections or relations, either between people or between people and the city. The prominent theme I wanted to depict was eroticism. It’s about two human beings coming together physically, through the flesh, rather than through words or logic.

“As the world tries to weather this pandemic, we see a rupture in human relations because we’re not allowed to touch each other. That makes this sense of human connection even more valuable. Because we’re living in a digital age, where people are increasingly communicating through digital networks, I wanted the film to depict a quiet, subtle resistance to where the world is headed.”

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©2019 Barbara Film Committee

Selected Media Exposure

A GIRL MISSING in Collaboration with TIFF


A GIRL MISSING IN COLLABORATION WITH TIFF


 October 19, 2020
Q&A guests: Director Koji Fukada, TIFF Festival Chairman Hiroyasu Ando
and TIFF Selection Committee member Kohei Ando


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Kohei Ando, Koji Fukada and Hiroyasu Ando. ©FCCJ

The Film Committee has been collaborating on annual special screening events with the Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) for a decade or more, but in this very challenging year, it feels more important than ever. TIFF announced last month that, barring catastrophe, it will hold a physical 33rd edition, with the implementation of strict health and safety measures, from October 31 – November 9 at theaters in Roppongi.

This in itself was a milestone, since many international festivals were forced to cancel due to the pandemic, and others were stymied by ongoing theater closures in their host cities. The most famous of canceled festivals was Cannes, which nevertheless announced a lineup of 'Cannes Premiere 2020' titles, a selection of films that it would have premiered at the festival, had one been held.

Among those titles was award-winning director Koji Fukada’s The Real Thing, a nearly 4-hour opus about a consummately dull salaryman whose life is overturned by an eccentric woman. Although Fukada was not able to appear in person, the film had its International premiere at the Pingyao Film Festival in mid-October, and will have its Japan premiere during TIFF, with the director and cast present.

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 ©Koichi Mori

Fukada has been named the Japan Now Director in Focus for this year’s TIFF, and he joined TIFF Chairman Hiroyasu Ando and Selection Committee member Kohei Ando at FCCJ to discuss some of the highlights of the 33rd edition.

“There was a lot of deliberation as to whether to hold the festival this year, and whether it should be in a physical form,” admitted the chairman. “But we ultimately came to the decision that we would hold it physically so that we could bring audiences back to the cinemas. We want them to once again experience the joy of watching films on the big screen and to find hope for the future.”

TIFF will be screening over 100 films, with 32 of them (10 from Japan, 10 from the US/Europe and 12 from Asia) selected to receive the 'Tokyo Premiere 2020' label, making them eligible for the single prize that will be bestowed on films this year, an Audience Award chosen by all viewers.

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 ©Koichi Mori

While conceding that there would be almost no foreign guests, from filmmaking teams to programmers to journalists (unless they are already in Japan), Ando emphasized that TIFF would be screening many world premieres as well as films drawn from the Berlin, Cannes and other festivals around the world, and that there would be virtual talks sessions with an array of international participants.

He also had this to say: “To represent what this year’s festival aims to achieve, we will be featuring the work of Koji Fukada in the Japan Now Section. We chose Mr. Fukada because he has been very active internationally, has made international co-productions and has an impressive filmography. Another reason that we hold him in high regard is that this year, he initiated the Mini-Theater Aid campaign in order to help support arthouse cinemas in Japan, who were struggling in the face of the pandemic.”

Kohei Ando (no relation), TIFF’s Japan Now programmer since the section was created 7 years ago and one of the members of TIFF’s new Selection Committee, shared his enthusiasm, while also invoking last year’s Japan Now Director in Focus: “Allow me to (first) quote from a great filmmaker that we recently lost, Nobuhiko Obayashi: ‘Films cannot change the past, but they do have the power to change the future.’

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 ©FCCJ

“Mr. Fukada is a filmmaker who gives us deep insight into today’s Japan, and into the human condition, while urging us to contemplate the absurdities of society. We’re facing a very tumultuous year with the coronavirus pandemic; but with the perceptive work that Mr. Fukada has been producing, we look forward to seeing his vision of the future in the future.”

Asked how he felt about the Japan Now retrospective, which will showcase four of his feature films, including Cannes Jury Prizewinner Harmonium (2016) and a range of shorts from 2006-2020, Fukada had this to say: “It’s a real honor to be chosen as the Japan Now Director in Focus, and I thank the Tokyo International Film Festival for their brave decision.

“Exactly 10 years ago, I received the first major award of my career at TIFF and that was the springboard to launching my films into many other international film festivals, allowing us to secure distribution and reach overseas audiences as well as those in Japan. So this feels like a turning point, and I’ll take it as a sign of encouragement to continue making films."

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 ©Koichi Mori

The first question from the assembled press was an obvious one: “Why did you call your selection a ‘brave decision?’”

Fukada laughed. “I chose the word because, first and foremost, I’m a rather young director and I don’t have that many films in my filmography yet. Also, I don’t make commercial films. I do think one of the functions of a film festival, perhaps its ‘social responsibility,’ is to shine a spotlight on filmmakers whom we haven’t [passed judgment on] yet, to highlight a particular artistic vision or a type of auteurism. In terms of fulfilling that responsibility, I appreciate TIFF’s bravery.”

Although this was not mentioned, Fukada plays a uniquely activist role in the Japanese film industry, and the Mini-Theater Aid crowdfunding campaign is just one manifestation of it. In 2012, he was one of the founders of the Independent Cinema Guild, a support group for all practitioners in the field — from filmmakers and festival organizers to cinema owners and film critics — to correct the “serious imbalance in the diversity of films being produced in this country” and to stop the “cultural impoverishment,” as well as actual impoverishment, of indie filmmakers who work with insanely low budgets.

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 ©Koichi Mori

In 2019, when issues of sexual and power harassment in the film industry started making headlines, Fukada spoke out in support of public dialogue, and he has stayed in the headlines with his candid criticisms of an industry that is built on constant manga, novel and TV-show adaptations, and his pleas for more government subsidies to support culture. Just last month, in an interview with AFP, he said, “It's difficult to produce non-commercial films in Japan, where a lot of importance is given to their marketability… At this rate, Japanese cinema is going to go down the drain.”

Asked whether he thought there would be significant changes in the industry as a result of Covid-19, Fukada said that there was now “an extra layer of security precautions that have to be implemented on set. We were probably not taking stringent enough precautions prior to the pandemic, because we work within very small budgets and that limits the amount of time we have on set. Now that we have to fight the pandemic, it means we need a larger budget to increase the manpower required on set. We need to create a support system within the industry, and hopefully, be able to rely on some government funding to do so.”

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 ©Koichi Mori

Outside of the Japan Now section, TIFF will be showing over 3 dozen more Japanese titles, including many animated films, remastered classics, upcoming commercial releases and new work by emerging directors. Kohei Ando recommended several Japanese titles before commenting, “The European and Asian films in in this year’s Tokyo Premiere 2020 selection focus heavily on race, immigration, minority and gender issues. I wish that more Japanese filmmakers would delve into societal themes — but this does not apply to Mr. Fukada’s work, of course.”

TIFF’s chairman noted that there was likely to be much discussion of such issues during the nightly Asia Lounge Conversation Series, a new initiative proposed (and sometimes moderated) by Palme d’Or winner Hirokazu Kore-eda. “Although it will be online only,” explained Ando, “we will be pairing up various filmmakers and film industry leaders from throughout Asia, with prominent Japanese industry figures.”

TIFF 2020 poster
©Tokyo International Film Festival

Following the panel, the audience was treated to a special screening of Fukada’s award-winning 2019 film, A Girl Missing, and a Q&A session with Fukada that lasted another 50 minutes. There were questions on topics ranging from cinematography, casting and poster art to the state of indie film industry in general — and the director would have welcomed many more if closing time hadn't arrived.

a-girl-missing photo-2 2019 YOKOGAO FILM PARTNERS  COMME DES CINEMASTsutsui (front) and Ichikawa (back) in an image from A Girl Missing.
©2019 YOKOGAO FILM PARTNERS & COMME DES CINEMAS

For the film, Fukada reunited with the inimitable star of his Cannes award-winner Harmonium, Mariko Tsutsui, for a layered story about a woman whose kindness is ruthlessly crushed following a scandal in which she’s an innocent bystander. Tsutsui brilliantly plays Ichiko, a devoted home hospice nurse to the cancer-stricken matriarch of the Oishi family, and surrogate mother to her two granddaughters, Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa, equally superb) and Saki, whom she helps study for their exams. Ichiko is preparing to marry again, to a doctor whose young son clearly adores her. All is well until Saki goes missing and Ichiko’s nephew is implicated in the crime. At Motoko’s urging, she says nothing about the connection to the police. But before the guilt can start consuming her, her relationship to the culprit goes public and the press makes her life a living hell.

A master of the family-crisis genre, Fukada ratchets up the suspense and the ambiguities in A Girl Missing, creating a double-strand narrative of incredible chronological complexity that rewards viewer vigilance and packs a deep emotional punch.

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©FCCJ

“I offered Ms. Tsutsui the part even before I started writing the script, and she accepted,” the director explained. “It was wonderful for me because I know that she’s extremely skilled and there’s nothing she can't do, so I wrote it [without compromises].”

One audience member, a professed fan of Fukada’s work, apologized for “being rude” but noted that she’d found the character of Ichiko to be “even more repulsive than the criminal in Harmonium. I was fascinated with her but I didn’t like her at all.”

Fukada nodded. “People often come to me and say they can’t empathize with this or that character of mine. I wonder whether it’s really necessary to be able to empathize? As someone who’s been an ardent filmgoer for years, I must say that I’ve never made the protagonist’s likability a factor in my decision about whether or not I like a film.

“Actually, I’m more excited by a character that I can’t understand or can’t relate to. I think a character we can’t understand reflects reality more closely than otherwise. I think it’s hard to really understand someone else. You can guess, but you can never really know — not even with yourself.”

A Japanese film critic, noting that the film had opened in August in France, where it had become a big hit and played in more theaters than Takeshi Kitano’s films ever did (Kitano was once hugely popular there), asked why the reception had been so different from at home.

Nodded Fukada, “It opened in 119 theaters and expanded to 200 theaters, becoming what they called a ‘smash hit.’ I think that is probably at least partially the result of the pandemic, since not too many films were opening. But my previous film, Harmonium, actually drew a much larger crowd in France than in Japan. It’s not that my name is better known in France, so they’re not coming to see it because it’s a ‘Fukada film.’ I’m not a commercially successful director like Mr. Kitano or Mr. Kore-eda, I don’t make entertainment pieces, my films are rather dark. But I think the cultural backdrop allows for more cinematic diversity there.”

a-girl-missing poster     GMing 2019 YOKOGAO FILM PARTNERS  COMME DES CINEMAS
The North American and Japanese film posters. ©2020 Film Movement; © 2019 YOKOGAO FILM PARTNERS & COMME DES CINEMAS

Marveling that children are taught about cinema from an early age in France — “they’re even shown Yasujiro Ozu films in grade school!” — Fukada continued, “They grow up watching films, and they have a wider range of tastes when it comes to art and cinema. It also allows for diversity and openness toward different cultures. I think this is something Japan could benefit from doing. Perhaps we should start including film education in our classrooms. If we do that now, more people in this country might come to see my films 20 years from now.”

Fukada was asked why the Japanese and English titles were so very different. “I had decided on the Japanese title, Yokogao (meaning profile), early on,” he responded, “because I thought Mariko Tsutsui’s profile was really striking. It was also a good metaphor for the story, because we can only see one side of ourselves (the front). My international sales company, MK2, came up with the English title, which is quite nice because it has a double meaning. They wanted it to sound like a suspense film, which it is, and also to indicate that the girl who’s missing is the protagonist herself. The French title is L’Infermiere, meaning caregiver. So the titles are all different and so are the posters.”

a-girl-missing photo-1Ichiko is confronted by a rabid press. ©2019 YOKOGAO FILM PARTNERS & COMME DES CINEMAS

Taking the French theme even further, another critic asked about Fukada’s experience getting funding in Japan vs. in France (the National Centre for Cinema and the Moving Image or CNC supported both A Girl Missing and Harmonium). Admitting that he could address the subject for the next 2 hours, the director said, “I would say that independent filmmakers in Japan are in dire straits in three respects: first, they don’t receive the same level of funding, in terms of either the budget or the percentage of government subsidies that go to culture and film. The arts subsidies from Bunkacho (the Agency for Cultural Affairs) are ¥200 million, while in Korea, KOFIC contributes ¥4 billion and in France, CNC contributes ¥8 billion. Japanese are getting only 1/9 of what Korean filmmakers get, and 1/8 of what French filmmakers can expect. In the US, where there aren’t a lot of government subsidies, at least there’s a lot of private financing from individuals and companies.

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©Koichi Mori

“Second, in Japan, about 80% of box office revenues go to big studios and corporations, because it’s still legal here for them to also own the distribution chains.

“Third, what also helps filmmakers in France and Korea is that a tax is imposed on each ticket sale — in France 10%, Korea 3% — and that tax money is pooled and redistributed to the film industry. The CNC and Korea’s KOFIC push for the further development of film culture as well as diversity in filmmaking. Here, there’s simply no systematic way that the industry is able to come together, regardless of whether they’re major studios or indie filmmakers.”

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 But despite the depressing state of the industry, the delays in shooting his new script, and major lifestyle changes imposed by Covid, Fukada’s mood was upbeat. After all, the Tokyo International Film Festival will be holding a physical edition, and Fukada will be appearing for live Q&As after each of his films is screened, along with key cast members.

There is also this to look forward to: Mariko Tsutsui has been nominated as Best Actress for her exception performance in A Girl Missing at the 14th Asian Film Awards, and the winners will be announced on October 28.

Koji Fukada Facebook upload photo copy
©FCCJ

Selected Media Exposure

AINU MOSIR


AINU MOSIR


 October 8, 2020
Q&A guests: Director Takeshi Fukunaga and actor Debo Akiba


FCCJ Ainu Mosir FCCJ-7Debo Akiba joins director Takeshi Fukunaga from Hokkaido, via the magic of Zoom.  ©FCCJ

Like many nations with colonial pasts, Japan once deployed a policy of forced assimilation, economic and social discrimination, even family separation against its indigenous Ainu people — almost completely erasing their culture and identity. In the 19th-20th centuries, the government denied them the right to speak their language (it has been classified as critically endangered by UNESCO), as well as their right to hunt and gather.

Only with the 2019 passage of the Ainu Policy Promotion Act, the first recognizing them as an indigenous people, were the Ainu extended the right to “live with pride in their ethnicity” and to be afforded equal treatment.

Takeshi Fukunaga’s beautifully crafted second feature, Ainu Mosir, thus arrives at an auspicious juncture. Five years in the making and already the recipient of several major international festival awards, it portrays, in the guise of a gentle coming-of-age tale, the ongoing challenges facing the natives who call Hokkaido’s Akan Ainu Kotan home.

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Fukunaga smiles at Debo, on a screen to his left. ©Koichi Mori

Fukunaga first appeared at FCCJ in 2017 with his debut feature Out of My Hand, which he had shot partially in Liberia and in New York City, the director’s adopted home for 16 years. With Ainu Mosir, the Hokkaido native once again demonstrates that he is uniquely positioned to tell stories about outsiders that are also universally human stories.

The film focuses on Kanto (Kanto Shimokura) a sensitive 14 year old who lives in Akan Kotan, a UNESCO World Heritage site. His mother runs one of Akan’s craft shops and takes part in the nightly performances of Ainu music and dance “traditions,” which are accompanied by flashing lights and videos.

Akan is “too tiny, it’s not normal and they make you do Ainu stuff,” complains Kanto, who would rather sing “Johnny B. Goode” in his middle-school rock band. But like the other students, he is deeply conflicted about his sense of identity.

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©AINU MOSIR LLC/Booster Project

When a family friend named Debo (Debo Akibe) takes him under his wing, it’s clear Kanto has yet to come to terms with the loss of his father a year earlier. Debo teaches him the ways of their ancestors, shows him the path to the other side of the world where the dead live, and asks him to help raise a bear cub he’s keeping.

What Kanto doesn’t realize is that the bear is to be sacrificed in the ancient religious rite known as iomante, to thank the kamui gods for the gifts they have bestowed upon humans. But the controversial ritual has not been observed since 1975 in Akan (although the last one in Hokkaido was performed in 1990), and the villagers are at first opposed due to the impact it would have on tourism. “People won’t accept it!” protests one. “No one else needs to understand,” says Debo. “This is about us.”

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©
AINU MOSIR LLC/Booster Project

As Kanto grapples with his shifting sense of morality and takes his first tentative steps toward manhood, Ainu Mosir remains gently non-judgmental, fully immersing viewers in the quotidian sounds and sights of this colorful indigenous community, engrossing the viewer in this young man's journey toward understanding and acceptance.

Appearing after FCCJ’s screening, Fukunaga told the audience that his intention was always to work with a (primarily) non-professional cast of locals.

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Koichi Mori

 “Being from Hokkaido myself, I realized after I’d left that I hadn't had a chance to learn about the indigenous Ainu people,” he explained. “Only after moving to the states did I recognize that I wanted to make a film about them. However, as a Japanese, or what the Ainu people call ‘Wajin,’ I knew I had to be very careful about depicting them, since I wanted to stay away from anything contrived or romanticized, as often occurs.

“I did write dialogue, but I didn’t want [the cast] to memorize it, I wanted them to express things in their own words, in a way that was close to their own stories. I tried to create an environment in which each of the cast members felt free to act in a natural way. I didn’t direct them as much as I would had they been professional actors.”

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©FCCJ

Debo Akibe, who joined Fukunaga via Zoom from Akan, was one of the exceptions to the “non-professional” rule, having appeared in such films as Lee Sang-il’s 2013 hit Unforgiven, alongside Ken Watanabe and Koichi Sato. In fact, one imagines that Akibe is the exception to quite a few rules. His character in Ainu Mosir is both frightening and admirable, yet his doting tutelage of young Kota makes him an endearing father figure at the same time that he is a formidable defender of the Ainu tradition.

“How close are you to the amazing character you play?” he was asked. “There are similarities,” Akibe admitted,” but I don’t think I have as much perseverance and I’m more short-tempered. I wouldn’t have the patience to teach that young man so [wisely] and gently, as my character does in the film.”

That “young man,” Kanto Shimokura, also came in for his share of praise. Discussing the casting, Fukunaga explained, “We’d already decided that we were going to shoot in Akan, so our choices were quite limited. We needed to select someone who was in junior high school or below (Akan does not have a high school, so students must go elsewhere) or a much older man. The woman who plays Kanto’s mother in the film is his actual mother, and she was really cooperative, and introduced us to all the townspeople. Through discussions with her, I met Kanto early on. I knew he had a special presence, a special sensitivity about him.

 Ainu mosirAINU MOSIR LLCBooster Project
©AINU MOSIR LLC/Booster Project

“When we rewrote the script and made [the character] younger, we immediately cast Kanto. It was an easy choice because we’d already built a relationship with him through preparations for the shoot. He’s actually very interested in acting, so I think it was a good decision.”

Asked about his experience working with Shimokura, Akibe recalled, “The first scene we did in front of the camera, I was really surprised at what he delivered. With every scene from them on, he completely understood what he had to do and he didn’t second-guess himself at all. I don't know how many conversations he had with the director, but his presence went beyond acting.

“I wanted to make sure that my own performance didn’t feel actorly. I wanted to show something that didn’t look like acting. I was able to do that because of Kanto’s wonderful performance — as well as Mr. Fukunaga’s wonderful directing.”

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©AINU MOSIR LLC/Booster Project

The film’s credits note that no animals were harmed in its making, and in fact, it depicts iomante only through a scratchy VHS tape that Kanto has found in his father’s things. Fukunaga and Akibe were asked how they had morally positioned themselves concerning the townspeople’s struggle to decide whether to resurrect the ancient ritual.

Said Fukunaga, “Debo-san gave me a lot of advice about this. Among the Ainu, some are opposed to resurrecting the ritual, and of course, some are not. They all have their own reasons for it. I couldn’t think of any other motif that captures the spiritually and culture of the Ainu so completely as iomante, and that’s why I chose to depict it.

“This is not a documentary, so what you see in the town meeting is fictional. But those who spoke out against it are actually opposed to it in real life, and the same goes for those who support it in the film. I don’t think I’m in a position to have my own opinion on this, but I wanted to depict the [town’s divide].”

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©AINU MOSIR LLC/Booster Project

Akibe was candid: “That scene, in which the townspeople are deliberating whether or not to go forward with iomante, had no dialogue written for it, so what you see is an impromptu enactment of what it would be like. As for my own sentiments, I was surprised to discover that so many people were against the revival of the ritual.

“To tell you the truth, 10 years ago I had a little cub that I called ‘Chibi,’ or ‘Little One’ [just as my character does in the film], and I was raising it to ultimately kill him. But everyone was against it and I couldn’t find one person to join me. My wife told me that if I killed and ate him, she would leave me. So I had no choice but to give up on the idea.

“When it comes to issues like tradition and culture, through the process of participating in this film, I came to discover just how personally people in Akan take iomante, and how much they value life. I realized that reviving tradition is sometimes not the completely the righteous thing to do."

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©AINU MOSIR LLC/Booster Project

 A Canadian cultural historian, noting that she shows Inuit and Mohawk films in her classes, said, “We have a similar colonization history, where filmmakers stole the stories of the native people, and now the native people are telling the stories themselves. I wonder if Mr. Akibe could talk about the decision to accept Mr. Fukunaga into the community and the relationship you had with him.”

Akibe broke into a wide smile on the Zoom screen. “The first time I met him,” he said, “my impression was, ‘Ohhhh, this is going to be complicated.’ After we had talked about the kind of film he wanted to make, and heard that he wanted to depict the iomante ritual, we knew it would be difficult. But he was very passionate about it, and he was able to convince me to believe in it, to want to help him. I felt that if a director was that serious about a film, then it would a success.”

He continued, “Throughout these 160 years, the Ainu and indigenous peoples around the world have been through dire straits as the colonists stripped them of their culture and their language. Of course it’s understandable that there are many indigenous people today who are still suspicious of the colonists and remain very resentful.

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©FCCJ

“But across these past few decades, I’ve seen that kind of sentiment gradually wane, and everyone now seems to accept the notion of thriving together.* I did make one special request of the director. I wanted him to make sure that the revival of the tradition would not be depicted as any sort of revenge of the Ainu against the non-indigenous people.”

Indeed, one of the film’s many strengths is Takeshi Fukunaga’s restrained, non-judgmental depiction of cultural practices that are unfamiliar to most. Ainu Mosir should help to change that, as should the new National Ainu Museum and Park, which opened in July in Shiraoi, Hokkaido, with the mission of reviving and developing Ainu culture.

Viewers in the U.S. will also have a chance to see the film, after the just-announced acquisition by Ava DuVernay’s Array Releasing, which focuses on stories by and about minorities. They also distributed Fukunaga’s Out of My Hand, and will play this theatrically in select cities in November before debuting on Netflix.

AINUMOSIR posterAINU MOSIR LLCBooster Project
©AINU MOSIR LLC/Booster Project

Selected Media Exposure

THE ASADAS


THE ASADAS (Asadake!)


 September 30, 2020
Q&A guests: Director Ryota Nakano and photographer Masashi Asada


FCCJ Asadas FCCJ-10-2
Masashi Asada (left) and director Ryota Nakano pose with the medallion for their film's international premiere.  
©Koichi Mori

It’s the rare Japanese director who can balance humor and pathos with the dexterity demonstrated by Ryota Nakano. After just four feature films, he has established a familiar voice and a favorite subject: the family, as it faces dark days. Yet there is always brightness in the gloom, and scenes of gentle humor are punctuated by endearingly quirky details.

In his much-heralded feature debut, Capturing Dad (2012), the titular patriarch has just died, yet one remembers most the moments of mirth, like the payoff to a slow-building punchline about a young boy’s obsession with a tuna fish. Admittedly, Nakano’s next two releases, both enormous hits in Japan, elicited more tears than laughter —in Her Love Boils Bathwater (2016), a matriarch who runs a bathhouse is dying of cancer, and in A Long Goodbye (2019), an aging father is spiraling into Alzheimer’s.

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©Koichi Mori

But his playful, poignant new The Asadas rediscovers the joyous, slightly off-kilter tone of Capturing Dad, even with a second half that is set in the aftermath of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The film is a reminder that, should the trend continue, Nakano may become this generation’s answer to the legendary Yoji Yamada, whose prodigious output (nearly 90 films and counting) has been almost entirely devoted to comedies centered on the family unit.

Appearing at the Q&A session following FCCJ's screening, Nakano explained how he’d become involved in the project, the first he’s made based on real-life characters. Indie producer Shinji Ogawa (Piéta in the Toilet, River’s Edge) had optioned the underlying rights in 2012, and approached Nakano after seeing Capturing Dad. Recalled the director, “He showed me this amazing photobook of all the Asada family members in cosplay, and said he wanted me to make a film about them. My first reaction was, ‘What a bizarre family!’ But I thought there must be some really interesting drama behind the impulse to dress up and pose for all those photos.

“As a filmmaker,” he continued, “I also always felt I had a responsibility to make a film about the 3/11 Tohoku disaster, and I had so far been unable to do that. When I met Mr. Asada and his very unique family, I finally felt that I could depict the disaster in a way that was true to my vision.

FCCJ Asadas KM-8
©Koichi Mori

“From the beginning of the project, we knew we wanted to have a happy ending. I felt it might be difficult to end in an upbeat way, considering that we were depicting the aftermath of 3/11. But after I’d gone to the stricken areas and interviewed survivors, I realized that they were much more forward-looking than we’d expected. So we felt it would be acceptable to end on a hopeful note.”

After some 18 drafts of the script, and dozens of interviews with various Asadas and other real-life people who would be depicted in the film, Nakano was ready for the casting process. With the actual Masashi Asada sitting next to him on stage, he told the FCCJ audience, “Needless to say, the most important role to cast at first was Masashi Asada. As I got to know him, I realized that he can be quite a slacker, quite laid back; but he’s also really affable, and has a way of winning people over, making it very difficult to dislike him.

asadas main  2020 The ASADASFilm Partners
© 
2020 “The ASADAS”Film Partners

“We had to figure out the best person to play that kind of character. When it comes to (Kazunari) Ninomiya, he can seem quite detached at first, but he’s a real people person. He has this genuine quality, like Mr. Asada, that attracts people to him.”

Ninomiya is one of Japan’s hugest movie (and pop) stars (Letters from Iwo Jima, Nagasaki: Memories of My Son), and his casting enabled Ogawa and Nakano to attract another huge star, Satoshi Tsumabuki (Waterboys, Traces of Sin), to play Masashi’s older brother, as well as a big-name supporting cast.

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©Koichi Mori

The film was inspired by Masashi Asada’s exploits, and while judiciously skirting hagiography, Nakano’s script allows Ninomiya to express Masashi’s reckless, free-spirited character in ways that are as irritating as they are charming.

Admitted the real-life Masashi, “I still have trouble believing that my photobook has been made into a film, and that Mr. Ninomiya is playing me. I’m very honored by that.”

Whether or not you’re familiar with that photobook — which immortalizes the Asada family in a series of hilarious, inventive photographs taken by Masashi — you will be enchanted by this foursome and its unusual dynamic. Here’s a family that plays together, stays together, talks about their hopes and fears together, and occasionally, dresses up in silly costumes together.

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©FCCJ

In The Asadas, Masashi (Ninomiya) is given his first camera by his photo-nut father (Mitsuru Hirata) at age 12, and decides he will grow up to be a photographer. When he’s close to flunking out of art school, he’s assigned to take the one photo he would take if he knew it would be his last. Masashi decides to recreate a childhood incident in which the entire family, including his elder brother Yukihiro (Tsumabuki) and mom (a marvelous Jun Fubuki) are in the hospital together. The Asadas have so much fun with the reenactment that Masashi begins shooting them in a range of cosplay getups: as firefighters, racecar drivers, superheroes, ramen chefs, rockband members, politicians and more.

But no Tokyo publisher will touch his “family photos” at first, and Masashi has to rely on childhood crush Wakana (Haru Kuroki) for support. After his fortunes finally begin to turn — in a twist that is stranger than fiction — he starts receiving requests to take family photos from across Japan. When the Fukushima disasters occur, he rushes to the devastated area to check on one of the families he had shot, and winds up staying on in a pivotal role.

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©Koichi Mori

With spirited recreations from Masashi’s bestselling photobooks (there have been several more since the first in 2008) and a cast working in top form, The Asadas pays tribute not only to the significance of family ties but also to the power of the photograph. As Masashi puts it, “a single photo can make memories tangible and sometimes, it can even give us the strength to live on.”

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©Koichi Mori

Asked how he’d engendered such a close-knit vibe from the actors, Nakano responded, “I decided to start the film shoot with the recreation of the Asada family photo album. We shot about 15 photos over the course of two days, working morning to sunset, with constant costume changes. The actors were laughing a lot and by the end of those two days, they’d become a family because they’d worked through the process together. That had been exactly my intention by starting production that way.”

Explained Masashi Asada, “The family photos you see in the film are nearly identical to the ones I shot with my own family. The first one we recreated was the firefighters photo, and we were able to shoot it at the exact same fire station, with the same fire engine and uniforms.”

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©Koichi Mori

And what was it like shooting actors rather than real people? Admitted Asada, “Professionals make me a lot more nervous than amateurs, because I’m much more used to the latter and it’s easier for me to coax people who are quite shy. [As for Ninomiya], watching him up close on set, I found his method of easing himself into a scene without seeming to prepare quite surprising. But when we were recreating the family photos, he was attuned to the tiniest details. He really has an eye for things.”

“Did the experience make you want to start directing films yourself?” he was asked. Asada laughed. “This was the first time I’d been involved on a movie set, and I hadn’t realized just how many people are involved in the process. When I shoot my own photos, I don’t even have 10 people there. On this set, there were more than 10 times that many people, and it was quite amazing to see the director bringing them all together. I realized that it was something I would never be able to do. In short, I don’t think I’ll be making a film in the future.”

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©Koichi Mori

Asada was asked about his greatest influence, and immediately responded, “Shoji Ueda. He was a photographer based in Tottori, where the huge sand dunes are located, and he would shoot his family against the backdrop of the dunes. The photography scene was centered in Tokyo, but he stayed in Tottori and developed such a distinct style that he became internationally known for what we call ‘Ueda-cho’ (Ueda-style) photography. I respect him not only for his work but for his way of life.”

He paused before adding, “And I hope that my work might someday become internationally famous and lead to the coinage ‘Asada-cho.’”

Without missing a beat, the director chimed in, “And I, too, hope to be known internationally for ‘Nakano-cho’ films.”

Nakano is no stranger to non-Japanese audiences, having first traveled widely with Capturing Dad. His new film will make its international premiere in competition at the Warsaw International Film Festival in mid-October, before going to the Busan International Film Festival and elsewhere.

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©FCCJ

“It was my intent from the beginning to make this film not just for Japanese audiences,” he said. “Because it’s a film about family, and about the 3/11 disaster, I believe that it will also strike a chord with international audiences.

“I would go so far as to say that tonight’s screening, with an audience of people from so many different countries, feels like attending a small international film festival. So this is the de facto international debut of the film, and I’m very eager to know what you thought of it.”

Not surprisingly, the applause was spontaneous and substantial. It's surely a sign of things to come.

asadas  2020 The ASADASFilm Partners

© 2020 “The ASADAS”Film Partners

Selected Media Exposure

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