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Archive for November 2011

Interview with Masahiro Kobayashi

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By Nicholas Vroman and Ken Shima

Translation by Shizuko Masamori

In 2011, Masahiro Kobayashi’s Haru’s Journey, won the Mainichi Award for Best Film. Featuring yet another career defining role by the inimitable Tatsuya Nakadai and a breakout performance by Eri Tokunaga, it was a fitting tribute to Kobayashi’s film artistry. Kobayashi had been working on a singular style and vision of filmmaking on his truly independent oeuvre since his first film, Closing Time, screened at Cannes in 1996. By carving his own way, he was met with hostility from the established Japanese film industry while making a name internationally. With such uncompromising masterpieces as Bashing and The Rebirth he proved his mettle. Haru’s Journey, perhaps his most conservative film, finally won him recognition and a degree of commercial success in Japan.

Now a “respectable” director, we chatted about the long road he took to get there. On a chilly afternoon, we met with Masahiro Kobayashi in a coffee shop near Iidabashi station in Tokyo. It seemed an appropriate place. It was just around the corner from the Kurara theater, one of the last of the old-fashioned pinku film houses left in Tokyo – a basement dive with a particularly seedy appeal. Kobayashi-san was generous with his time and words as we sipped on strong coffee, he chain smoking Golden Bat cigarettes, the classic retro smoke of choice for generations of Bohemians, we attendant on his every word. He was preparing to move to Osaka, so it was nice to catch up with him and spend some time on his old turf.

Q. Could you tell us about your early experience?

K. Ever since I was young, through junior high and high school, I watched movies. I had no idea how to make or shoot them. Along with movie going, I began listening to folk music on the radio late at night. Listening to folk radio I heard songs by Wataru Takada – songs of old-world men, the smell of the world of men.

The Japanese film industry had already fallen into decline at that time and the genres of film were limited to gangster films, pink films and sexploitation films. And then there were big-budget films. Now I think we’re back in the same situation. There were no Japanese films worth seeing. I was captivated by Wataru’s songs, so I started songwriting and singing solo. It was mostly through the lyrics that I thought of expressing myself.

I wanted to be a film director but didn’t know how, so I sang songs. My songwriting was inspired by the world of films, the lyrics coming from stories and images. So, until I was about 22 I was singing, watching mainly foreign films and listening to American folk music.

Q. What about the films in those days? Any that stood out?

K. Japanese films didn’t have a great influence on me, since the films in those days didn’t seem to be so creative. The films by Japanese directors didn’t appeal to me so much. Even the Kurosawa epics – though now I like them – because I felt they were classist. When I was young, I didn’t recognize the so-called masters.

Q. Not even Oshima?

K. Even when he was young, Nagisa Oshima made politically themed works and many a political speech. He was also working at Shochiku. In my opinion, he was a studio director. In Japan there were no nouvelle vague films. He said their involvement in political issues was necessary, while I thought a fundamental change in filmmaking was the French nouvelle vague itself. Even in American cinema, there was the pioneering of location shooting and the handy-camera, and that not highly educated people or junior high school graduates, like Truffaut, were able to make films. I thought that was the genuine nouvelle vague. The Japanese nouvelle vague was only a pretext to bring politics into the movies. Average people didn’t see it. It was merely a topic of conversation. For instance, “Merry Christmas, Mr. Laurence” made Oshima famous at last, not his previous films like “Koshikei” [Death by Hanging] which weren’t made for the public. Films like Truffaut’s “Les quatre cents coups” or Godard’s “À bout de souffle “ weren’t big hits in Japan, but “La nuit américaine” was successful, because it won an Academy Award. At that time I was more involved with the movements of regular people that the Japanese nouvelle vague wasn’t. So I wasn’t interested in those films.

Q. American films?

K. Of the American cinema I love the films by George Roy Hill and Hall Ashby. “Harry and Tonto” and “Cinderella Liberty” are my favorites.

Q. You famously went to France to meet Truffaut – and didn’t.  Then you came back to Japan…

K. In those days, I started writing scenarios, similar to Godard’s “Masculin, féminine,” for example. At the beginning, I wrote scenarios with memos, not the way a professional does. I came back in earnest… after being in France for 10 months. I was extremely hungry for Japanese. Also, I never met up with Truffaut. I was collecting a lot of ideas. Nearly every day, I was writing, almost vomiting up scenarios. After returning from Europe I wrote on an almost daily basis.

Q. So, this was about 1980. When did you first start getting your screenplays produced?

K. I never sent my scripts to any producers but applied to screenplay competitions. Various competitions. TV dramas or whatever I found. And I won the Kido Award sponsored by the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan in October of that year. But the film was never made.

Q. And that film was?

K. The title of the screenplay was “Namae no nai kiiroi saru-tachi” (Nameless Yellow Monkeys) and then I started Monkey Town Productions, my production company, to film it, though it still hasn’t been realized.

From the Kido Award I got a lot of opportunities to write TV dramas. I wrote so many scripts. Drama series and soap operas, I must have written a thousand. I worked at several TV stations at first, and then shifted mostly to NHK in the end.

Q. And you also wrote pinku scripts.

K. I wrote scripts mostly for Toshiya Ueno and Toshiki Sato under the pen name of Koichi Kobayashi, which I borrowed from Koichi Yamadera, a film critic, but without permission.

Q. Is this your stage name for music too?

K. I have a stage name, Hiroshi Hayashi, for my music performances.  I write it in katakana.

Q. How did you transition from screenwriting to directing?

K. I started my career in screenwriting when I was 22 and have written many dramas for commercial TV stations and NHK since. And when I was 39 I had an offer from NHK to write the scenario of the Taiga-drama, their big budget annual history drama. It had been 10 years, and now with 30 episodes to write, I thought I would be stuck forever as a screenwriter and I wanted to be a director. So I decided to quit. I wrote a story for a play called “Life Lesson.” This theatre piece was a failure. It was a piece for 2 people but… how should I put it? The actors thought it was too risky and stopped coming to rehearsals. That’s when I was 40 – less of a theatre person, still, and from the beginning I wanted to make films. I had some “pinku knowhow” and I called on Toshiyuki Saito to help as production manager and made my first film, “Closing Time,” when I was 41 or 42. As it was, I was still learning. At that time pinku films had about a 5 million yen [$50,000] budgets. So, I tried to make it in one week at the same budget. I paid for everything from what I had saved from script writing. After all the money was spent it came to about 10 million yen. “Closing Time” was entirely self-financed.

Q. How did “Kaizokuban Bootleg Film” come about?

K. In 1997, Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival awarded the 1 million yen Grand Prize to “Closing Time” but I spent almost same amount of money for the party held later. When I started, I considered leaving the filmmaking once and for all but I changed my mind and decided to make next one as soon as possible after I won Grand Prize in Yubari. This is because I wanted to follow the same path as Truffaut, who made “Tirez sur le pianiste” soon after his big hit “Les quatre cents coups”. I needed 5 million yen. But with only about 3 to 3 and half million yen, I made my next film. I thought of making “Kaizokuban Bootleg Film ” the same way as “Tirez sur le pianiste” – black and white, cinemascope, maybe dubbing the sound, but I used synch sound. Making it rough. The final scene in the snow was similar to my ski slope scene.

Q. So how did “Kaizokuban Bootleg Film” do?

K. I felt everything was done and over when “Kaizokuban Bootleg Film” was presented in the “Asian Film Week” program of the Tokyo International Film Festival. So, before Christmas, I sent a VHS of “Bootleg Film” with English subtitles – there were no DVDs then – with a Christmas card to Gilles Jacob, then director of Cannes Film Festival. I had sent “Closing Time” before, receiving a polite letter of rejection. In any case I thought it [Kaizokuban Bootleg Film] would also be turned down. Unexpectedly, I got a call on my birthday, January 6th. Addressing me in French as Monsieur Kobayashi.  I thought it must be some kind of donation request to support Africa – maybe from some Algerians. I never thought I would hear from Cannes. I was just about to hang up when I recognized the voice saying congratulations in English – and felicitations or something like that. I realized it was the festival. I could not catch exactly what he said but understood they were going to send me an entry form by fax. I waited for hours – all night – for the entry form. The next morning I got it. So, “Kaizokuban Bootleg Film” was in Cannes. Another film done, I had thought of quitting, but it took me to Cannes, so I had to make another.

Q. And that was?

K. I’d been writing screenplays for pink films so I wanted to shoot just one. That was “1 shuukan aiyoku nikki” [One week lust diary]. It was interesting. It was fun. But here’s a director who went to Cannes making a pink film. Pink film fans were envious. Everyone felt jealous, including other film directors and critics, refusing to judge the film on its own merits. For me, it’s one of my favorite films.

Q. But still, you weren’t having much good response to your films in Japan.

K. I got the cold shoulder because of Cannes. People asked what did you do to get in? How much I paid or how many men I slept with, and so on and so on.

Q. And not only that, your films are different than your average Japanese film.

K. My style is completely different from other directors. Not so much in the process of making films but in my cutting technique and my choice of subjects. And using my own money. It’s unimaginable to me to think that wanting to have a sponsor would allow for any freedom in making a project. So I control the scriptwriting and planning. And the music and casting too. The difference is in being able to handle it all. For several years, while I’d been making my own films, I really couldn’t make any sense of what other [Japanese] filmmakers were trying to do. At one point I was watching dozens of Japanese films. They were almost all the same. I couldn’t figure who was making what film. The difference between their films and mine made me feel I came from a very different world. Between films shown at foreign film festivals and domestically released Japanese films, thematically there’s a completely different feel. It’s been said that the Japanese people would appreciate my films if I were a French director, or that I should make films with a more Japanese feel. But I’m making films about Japanese stories in Japanese.

Q. And it also seems that television is where most filmmakers end up and the look and style of Japanese film is TV oriented.

K. For example, take Isshin Inudou, who directed “Zero no shouten [Zero Focus] and… well, “Joze to tora to sakana-tachi” [Josee, the Tiger and the Fish]. His other films are so similar they’re indistinguishable. From the color feel to the look of the images. Even the stories are all the same. They show no sign of uniqueness. Films invited by overseas film festivals require some individuality, but there’s no real individuality and any film that’s unique isn’t accepted by the industry. If a director’s personality shows through, the Japanese producers system will find it undesirable. Producers in Japan want to handle not only casting, but the entire filmmaking process. Since the old days we [in Japan] have been using the word “kantoku” for “film director” – and it’s a term I really hate. I never use the word, because it’s very vague – we use the same word [kantoku] for the chief at a construction site. Being the foreman at a construction site doesn’t have the same meaning as a film director. Much less, in France. We don’t have people who “realize” here. That’s the big difference. We give this ambiguous word “kantoku” for the director of a film, which sounds nice but doesn’t give any actual authority. I really hate it. Therefore on my films for the credits I use “mise en scène” or “réalisateur” in French.

Q. More like someone who has the vision for the film.

K. Really, the word “kantoku” doesn’t mean “realization” in Japan. They say that’s what it means in Japanese. But, they [kantoku] are merely overseers.

Q. Let’s move on to Aruku hito.

K. “Aruku, hito” is the story of a family, a very old scenario. It was written when I was becoming a screenwriter. It was written three years after my mother passed away. I wrote it as a short script for TV. But it seemed that Ken Ogata got involved, so I rewrote it. It was set in Tokyo originally, but I rewrote it to take place in Hokkaido. Things didn’t work out well between Ken Ogata and me. He had his own idea of how to make the movie but couldn’t figure out what direction I was taking. He would ask, “Sir, so what exactly do you want me to do?” I would reply with “have you seen this kind of approach in French film?” or things like that, but he didn’t have a clue. Having a great [acting] career, in his world he was used to things going his way – and me not knowing traditional film technique, didn’t understand what he was saying. Still, I didn’t back down. I didn’t want to be taken for granted, nor my vision for the film to be put down, so on the set there was a lot of strife.

At Mr. Ogata’s suggestion, the location was changed from Tokyo to Hokkaido but the story was remained the same.

Q. Your films take place either near the sea, or in some snow-covered place. What can you tell us about this?

K. I am not the kind to use metaphors in my films. But thinking about it, when I was a kid, it snowed more often in Tokyo. In spring I would go to a river that ran nearby or visit my uncle’s seaside house in Hayama every summer or go skiing in the mountains in winter. The sea in summer, the mountains in winter, I’ve been pulled to these experiences from an early age. I don’t like the sea in winter. The sea in summer is better. In winter I like snow in the mountains.  My sense of déjà vu stimulates something inside me, for sure.

Q. Would ever shoot at the seaside in winter?

K. A winter sea, I’d say no… I’d never use such a scene.

Q. Telephones show up in your films. Any special meanings from this?

K. I don’t like to portray my main characters as people who sever relationships – like a cutting off a phone line. The main characters in my films are always trying to communicate with others, even though they may not communicate well and are sometimes rejected by others – but they try to keep relationships going. Using the phone. “Bashing,” “Ai no yokan” and “Wakaranai” were made with this approach in mind, also showing the feelings of the other side. On the other hand, it might have made the films more confusing. It would be better to follow the first-person point of view. At any rate I sometimes need a third-person perspective. Objectively, I try to get rid of that point of view as much as possible, but I can’t leave it out entirely.

Q. You have a quite documentary feel to many of your films, Bashing in particular.

K. I’m not drawn to documentary directors like Pedro Costa, because both the nouvelle vague and American new cinema, my influences, were mainly entertainment. Fundamentally these so-called documentaries are not very human. Essentially these so-called documentaries aren’t telling human stories. They may be new cinema-like fictions. Whatever, since I’m a screenwriter, I prefer a good story and can’t, even wouldn’t like to become a documentary maker.

I respect the methodology of documentary filmmaking. But these [movies] tend to destroy images. They take already good images and make them bad. I have some kind of aversion toward documentary makers, especially Kazuo Hara. I really don’t like his work. I’ve seen see some of his work, but I’d rather make something different.

Q. What is it about documentaries that bugs you?

K. Documentaries make their subjects targets, steadily cornering them. I can hardly bear to look at them. For example, if someone pointed a camera at me and said, “I’m shooting a documentary” I might do anything. If told to kill somebody I might. I‘m not sure if that’s really documentary. In the end, the director thinks only of manipulating the situation, fueled, I can only imagine, by some kind of bogus threat.

As Truffaut said, making a film depends to a large extent on building up a relationship with the subject, or rather the actor, which to me, I don’t see documentary makers doing. Take for example, Agnès Varda’s documentaries, which I like. She doesn’t do whatever she wants with the subject. Her approach as a director is to inspire her subjects, but it seems filmgoers would rather see provocations. Those people identify with things like that, and I don’t think that’s what I want to do.

So, with these fake TV documentaries that are so popular, I can’t complain much about them because even though they may corner their subjects, they portray ordinary people, rather than actors or personalities, with a degree of moderation because of what they can broadcast. And though they don’t go into much depth and don’t break down the walls between subject and viewer, I’m not so revolted by them.

On the contrary there’re Kazuo Hara’s documentaries, “Yuki yukite shingun” [The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On] and “Zenshin shosetsuka” [A Dedicated Life]. Or “Yasukuni,” a controversial film directed by a Chinese director – the swordsmith was just a normal guy who sharpened swords. Through deliberate editing he was connected with beheadings [in Nanjing]. He sharpened the swords that killed Chinese people, thus he’s responsible.  He can’t be responsible for that sort of violence. I couldn’t do anything like that.

Q. So in Japan, there’s an expectation of doing things without question, whether from a documentary filmmaker or from the culture itself.

K. To some extent, it’s like the attitude of a local shrine association. People who are different – whether good or bad  – are shunned. Foreigners don’t understand this. I don’t think anything’s changed since I was born. People are bullied for dressing differently, even though the Japanese say there’s not a chance of this happening. So, you go to another country, criticize or even leave the village, you’re out, see. The Japanese movie industry is just like the shrine – you try to do something and you’re ignored or criticized. If you’re an extremely moderate talentless person – in Japan, all the better. If you say anything unexpected or have your own opinion, you won’t get anywhere.

Q. And among the younger generation?

K. In France about 30 years ago, compared to Japan, young people dressed as they liked – they found their own style. Now, go to any country and you have to look just right – even the hairdo. It’s not only in Japan. All over the world people are becoming more conservative.

So I don’t know whether I could make a film like “Bashing” [now].

Q. So, you think things have changed?

K. It feels like we’re going back to the past. Politics are bad, the economy too.  From the time I made “Bashing” it seems like we’re in a time similar to my childhood – I was born about 10 years after the war – at least for contemporary adults. The mood is similar. It’s very oppressive.

They say we shouldn’t talk about it. At that time in Tokyo there weren’t that many rules and regulations, although now regulations seem slacker. Though it’s pretty commonplace for people to find the rules rather bothersome.

Q. So, regarding politics and the politics of families…

K. As I said before, I don’t like bringing political stuff into my movies. But when I made “Bashing” I myself found the times completely oppressive. I made a movie called “Flic.” It was very personal and I gave it all I had at that time. After the release, the film played for only one or two weeks and I so wanted to quit filmmaking. I was down for about six months, but I couldn’t quit. I had to make one more film before I could stop. I also thought I would make a very private 8mm video film. That was my excuse. The result was a 35mm movie that was relatively social in theme. Until that time I thought I hadn’t had the opportunity to try that. After “Bashing,” I returned to family stories in “Ai no Yokan”, “Wakaranai ” and “Haru to no tabi” [Haru’s Journey]. “Bashing” has an energy and feel that’s somewhat different.

At this point, I’m considering getting on with more stories of families and what direction I should take them.

Someday, I’d like to take “Wakaranai,” or rather, part 2 and I’d like to see to where another year will have taken it. I’d like to follow up on it with a sequel. Like Truffaut’s “Adventures of Antoine Doinel” I want to follow a single person.

Q. Let’s talk about Haru to no tabi.

K. For me, I think “Haru to no tabi” is a rather conservative film. However, people came to see it. It had famous actors in it too. I’m a conservative man. Being rebellious doesn’t necessarily make one innovative. Being rebellious also doesn’t necessarily mean being antiestablishment, so in most ways the film was not critically accepted or praised at European film festivals. I thought to myself that it was an extremely domestic movie. It was the first time that Japanese filmgoers were pleased with one of my films. And they went to the theaters everywhere. Super! I think that makes it good. But if I say I’m going to make a film similar to it in the future, I don’t know.

Q. Let’s talk a bit about your style. The first thing that comes to mind is repetitive shots from the same angles.

K. It’s like composing music, or maybe singing a song. One sings a folksong with its refrain, uses a similar melody, repeats the same lyrics. That’s also how I make films. I like to push this idea, repeating a refrain to make the rhythm of a film. People’s day-to-day lives are pretty simple. A week or a year, not much changes. Every morning, we go to the bathroom, eat, wash our faces, in pretty much the same way and at the same time. Every once in a while the routine changes. This is what one should show in the movies.

Things like these are amazing. Minor repetitive incidents, gradually lead to a major breakdown. Therefore, I use that sort of compositional strategy.

Q. And your characters eat food with an insatiable hunger. Where does that come from?

K. I got quite sick before making “Bashing.” I should have been getting more calories and not drinking so much. As a result I became quite malnourished. The situation was such that I couldn’t even eat. I felt like dying. I was powerless. Gradually I started eating and thought that I should be proactive and positive about living.  So, by eating, various expressions come out.  Even without dialogue, I can establish any number of emotional states by showing what people are eating, where they eat and with whom they eat. Enduring anger, sadness and other emotional states can be expressed with scenes of eating.

Q. And how was it working with Nakadai in “Haru to no tabi?”

K. It was great working with Tatsuya Nakadai. I thought he might be the same type as Mr. Ogata, but when shooting ended I thought why hadn’t this happened before. [Nakadai] was a completely different type, someone who lived through the good old days and worked with many famous directors. Connecting with such a great actor, a lot was left unspoken. Whatever I suggested as a director he was absolutely a can-do sort of guy. A great guy and also a person I really respect. For next year, Mr. Nakadai suggested “hurry up and do another film with me, before I’m dead.” He turned 78 last December.

Q. And with Makoto Watanabe in ‘Ai no yokan?’

K. In “Ai no yokan” [The Rebirth] another actor was originally cast in the male role but I replaced him. That actor’s agency wanted me to wait a year for him to prepare for the role. He was nervous because it was a 2-person drama. A year later, he asked me to wait still another year. Waiting for 2 years to make such a small movie, an independent film, shouldn’t be so hard. By then, I thought even with a good actor, I needed someone I had a relationship with. Since the film had no dialogue it couldn’t be staged with someone who didn’t have a feel for it. I could show this actor how to do it, but thought to myself that it might not work. If there was dialogue, it would make it easier for the actor to make the character live. I myself would have a little more permission to collaborate with him. Without dialogue, the film relies mainly on images. I had already written the screenplay, but I wasn’t satisfied with the way things were going, so I thought of abandoning it. But then I thought, I’ll do the role.

I offered a certain gentlewoman the role. So when we spoke about this role, this actress said, “You can be either the director or the opposing player, but not both” and refused the part. Makiko Watanabe was the appropriate age, so I called her at home and told her “I’m actually shooting next week. Do you want in, pal?” She asked who was playing the opposite role and I told her I was and she said “Well…” In the end I sort of trapped her into saying yes. With only two people in the film, it was a delicate balance to perform and direct at the same time.

Q. Though “Bashing” has an empathy with the disappearing blue-collar world. It seems a bit extreme.

K. Consider the household in “Bashing” that the girl finally leaves once and for all. It’s a story that may have never come to light, since the family was more or less isolated, standing alone. This tragedy could happen anywhere in Japan. For people living in close quarters in Tokyo, it may be impossible, but the critics put the film down coolly as a fantasy, saying that in Japan, with such abundance, how could a kid be so alone and hate eating food so much. But if you go to the countryside, folks say it’s not impossible. So living together in the city, especially in Tokyo, it’s difficult to understand the helplessness of living in a small town and why people don’t act to change their situation.  Urbanites, people who work in the film industry, office workers, those who only like watching films, for most people, [Bashing] might appear to be a figment of my imagination. But to prove my point in “Wakaranai,” look at children abandoned by parents, kids growing up in institutions – which isn’t good for them – or worse, kids getting in trouble with the law and ending up in reformatories and when released becoming small time yakuza. Watching this film, you can empathize.

Q. There’s a thing you do with the repetitive shots of Yuko walking up to her apartment that shows that kind of empathy – with her routine.

K. I wanted to do the movie using a Hitchcock style of suspense. [Yuko] always goes up the stairs to her room the same way, until she finds her father dead, and then no more. I repeated the scene of her walking up the stairs and entering the room, so that in the final scene, when she walks in and doesn’t find her father, there’s a moment of suspense. So I drew out the scene repeatedly. Though the movie isn’t violent, there’s an invisible violence. This undercurrent of potential violence and suspense builds. Someone living nearby may pose a threat toward the kid. Something could happen. Something could come about, not just something mysterious near the genkan, but something truly dangerous.

After that movie was made – the Iraq war was already going on – I met [the woman Yuko was modeled on]. I invited her to a preview screening when it was completed but she thought it best not to attend. Personally going through a thing like that she didn’t want to become a spokesperson or do any interviews. In my own case, I got I a bashing from the film world. It made me think of what I would do in her place.

Q. Your recent films, though, have characters trying to find home, rather than running away.

K. Still think of “No Direction Home.” It’s the same for Americans – you don’t look back. But we are all looking for home.

Originally published in eigagogo.com, November, 2011


REVIEW: Children of Soleil

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ソレイユのこどもたち (Soreiyu no Kodomotachi)

Released: 2011

Director: Yoichiro Okutani

Running time: 107 min.

Reviewed by Nicholas Vroman

Among the New Asian Currents section of the 2011 Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, Yoichiro Okutani’s “Children of Soleil” received a special mention award.

It’s the middle of the night. A harsh spotlight reveals a couple of mongrel dogs settling down for a uneasy night in and among detritus filled plastic crates and miscellaneous junk strew across the deck of a small boat. Rats also prowl amongst the old machine parts and marine cast-offs. The restless midnight camera soon reveals the subject of the film, Yasuo Takashima, also referred to as Ojichan (a diminutive form for “uncle”), prowling the quayside. An irascible and eccentric old alcoholic – nearly homeless – he lives on a boat. He’s an archetypical example of human jetsam, cast off, ignored and left unspoken about by Japanese society.

Much to the chagrin of the neighborhood, he’s moored his boat, along with several other stray boats he’s collected, illegally on one of the old canals that still run through the southern and eastern kus of Tokyo. With the massive amounts of junk he collects and the handful of stray dogs he keeps for company, he’s become a bit of a neighborhood nightmare with his ever-growing floating trash heap.

Director Yoichiro Okutani keeps in close proximity, following him on foraging runs. In one notable scene, Ojichan proudly shows off a plastic garbage bag full of fish – no doubt found in dumpster. He proceeds to gut the contents in the dark of night at a public water spigot in a small park. He deftly eviscerates them to make himono, air-drying his catch by the canal’s side. The viewer can almost imagine the stench.

When he does purchase something, it’s a gigantic bag of dog food.

He has a few interactions with other lonely old guys hanging out at the local pocket park. He also mugs to the camera with his frequent asides and commentaries about life on the canal. But by far his most loving, touching and sometimes disgusting moments of genuine contact with the living beings is with his dogs. In their presences he dotes on and babies them, cooing with childish delight at their every action. In one scene, the big old hound, Jackie, gets sick, defecating runny stool on newspapers strewn across the deck of the boat. Ojichan gleefully scoops up the soiled newspapers, nonchalantly throwing them overboard, all the while shooting out a stream of loving patter about how much poor Jackie stinks.

A bit of background seeps into the film as Ojichan takes the filmmaker on a canal cruise, pointing out the site of a small shipyard where he once worked, now a particularly faceless office/residential building. He tells stories of his old days on the water. We see police trying to evict him for his canal spot. We see him working on a boat engine. He appears a savvy smart repairman past his prime, getting a few odd jobs. The boat he fixes barely functions as he goes on a test run.

By the end of the film, Ojichan, coughing and sick is evicted from his moorages. The camera trucks through some reeds onto a muddy spit where a single boat stands on blocks. Guarding the cabin door is the faithful Jackie. Inside lies poor Ojichan, surround by a couple of other dogs. He complains that he’s’ too sick and tired to even get up. The camera pans in the cramped quarters to a cardboard box. Inside the box is another dog, Soleil, and her newly birthed litter, squirming to find the teats of their skin and bones mother. Ever the mother himself, we hear Ojichan’s voiceover expressing concern for the health of Soliel.

“Children of Soleil” falls into a contemporary humanist strain of documentary practices, most influenced by the groundbreaking work of Sato Makoto, Makoto’s best remembered for 1992 masterpiece “Living on the River Agano,” in which he and his crew lived with a community for several years, documenting their daily lives. Makoto opened up a new form of documentary – for Japanese filmmakers – that while not being explicitly politically committed, allowed for deep commentary on Japanese society through a sort of embeddedness. Looking at the Japanese documentaries highlighted at the Yamagata International Documentary film festival over the past years, one gets the impression that the Makoto style is the reigning way of making docs in Japan. What makes the good ones shine is the development of the narratives, identification with the subjects and their issues and most importantly, the questions raised by the documentary practices themselves. “Children of Soleil” covers all these areas – in spades.

Takashima-san, Okutani’s subject, supplies all the audience identification one needs. Sure, he’s a bit crazy and not particularly environmentally correct, but his lifestyle and independence offers a particular nostalgia and longing that may be belied by his poverty-stricken existence. His story develops with a passionate and non-judgmental eye.
Bigger questions come up – particularly, with the final scenes of old Ojichan suffering, perhaps near death. Where is the point where a documentary maker/journalist should intervene? Where’s the line where a documentary keeps its humanist eye or becomes exploitive of an otherwise trusting subject? What about Ojichan’s complicity in getting his life documented? What are the real motives of the maker and subject? Shouldn’t they be explored during the making of the film?

After a few days in Yamagata watching hours of human misery, as an audience member I began to think of the 3rd point of view – the viewers. From my (relatively) comfortable theater seat, I wondered if there’s a sort of perverse tourism on display. The somewhat exotic and old-fashioned lifestyle of living on the canals is certainly tempered by the genuine tragedy that Ojichan suffers. The viewer easily walks away to his/her middle-class life, perhaps touched by the story, but ultimately left with the feeling of smugness and superiority. A sort of “I’m-glad-I’m-not-in-that-position/situation” may lurk under the veneer of pathos.

I’ll be exploring these questions with Yoichiro Okutani next week and will give a full report on J-Film Pow-Wow over the coming weeks.

Originally published in J-Film Pow-Wow, November 6, 2011

Written by Nicholas Vroman

November 6, 2011 at 3:26 am

Posted in Uncategorized

TIFF – Competition “The Compass is Carried by the Dead Man” interview with Arturo Pons (Director), Ozcar Ramirez Gonzalez (Producer) and Edgar Barroso (Music)

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An interview I did for the Tokyo International Film Festival.

The Compass is Carried by the Dead Man ©2011 TIFF

(To the left:Ozcar Ramirez Gonzalez(Producer), Edgar Barroso(Music), Arturo Pons(Director), Anna Ribera(Costume))

“The Compass is Carried by the Dead Man” is an absurdist parable about a group of Mexicans trying to cross the border between Mexico and the United States, only ending up going in circles. I sat down with Arturo Pons, the director – affectionately known as Chango – his producer Ozcar Ramirez and Chango’s long-time friend, collaborator and music composer for the film, Edgar Barroso.

— Why this story about the border?

Arturo Pons: I don’t know. It just came to me. I was studying and every day we had homework. We had to write a script for a short film – every day. So I had, like, too many short film scripts. And this one of them, until sequence twelve, I think, and it’s a real story that happened to some friends of mine in Mexico. So when I went to my teacher, Michel Gaztambide, who was the scriptwriter of Julio Medem’s “Vacas” ― which won here in 1992―he told me, “You have to go on with this. Why don’t you go on with this story.” So then I decided to make it less real, more unreal, more fantastic maybe. I took this theme, the disorientation theme―that’s the thing that rules every character, in every sequence, in every shot, everything in the movie. It’s not that I felt disoriented. It’s because I feel the world and the society and a lot of communities have this feeling. So, I decided to start developing the script that way. That was in 2004 when I started writing. And then a few years later, it seems prophetic because… at that time in my country it was much more different than now. Now there’s a war. Soldiers are killing each other and killing everybody and the government has no compass.
The Compass is Carried by the Dead Man ©2011 TIFF
— Are you talking about the narco-traficantes and what’s going on now?

Pons: Yes, but not at that time. But we took it seriously while we were shooting because we shot it two years ago and was like a big responsibility. Because we had that story at that time and when we were shooting things had changed. It was like a responsibility, so we decided to make it this way.

— And so…

Pons: Living in Barcelona, I evoked all the images, the characters that are in the wagon. I think it’s easier to evoke all these images being outside Mexico, because if you’re in Mexico, you watch all these images every day. But you can make a compilation if you’re outside and decide what works and what doesn’t work and start building… making the meaning of each image and each character. I think it’s easier. It’s like what Buñuel did in Mexico with “Viridiana.” And there are many directors and screenwriters and even writers that are outside of their countries. I think it’s a plus if you can do that.

— Like Arturo Bolaño.

Pons: And Julio Cortázar. He wrote almost all of his work in Paris, speaking about Argentina. It’s rich and it’s great. I think it’s a plus.

— So that inspires you to be away from Mexico?

Pons: Well I was there and I had to take advantage of it. And I think I took a lot from it.

— In this film the influence of Buñuel is huge. Could you talk about the similarities and the differences between you and Buñuel?

Pons: We can talk a lot about the similarities, like he was from Calanda, a town that is famous because everyone in the town plays drums. You can read about in his memoir. And I’m a drummer. Rock and roll! There’s that simple similarity, but I don’t think I’m into surrealism. There are a lot of people who say I’m making magic realism. But I think with magic realism they only talk about Latin American writers, but I think the spirit that makes this kind of thing is worldwide. For example (Hayao) Miyazaki has it. The creative process that leads you to have these kind of works. El espiritu que tu lleva que consiges este tipo de trabajo (The spirit that leads you is what makes you accomplish this kind of work). So there are creative people all over the world that use this creative process. I don’t like to say it’s surrealist or magic realism or anything. It’s just the creative process that leads you there. It’s not Jodorowsky either or it’s not David Lynch. Every one of us, we have our own creative process. We have a lot of things in common, but I don’t know Breton, so I’m not surrealist. I didn’t sign Breton’s booklet, you know. Yeah, I mean, that’s too standard. They try to standardize you in that way. I’m just making my movie and I’m trying to make it fun, for example. For example, nobody compares the compass with Tati, but it has more in common with “My Uncle” in how do I treat space than with Buñuel. I mean I have a lot of film references in here. And I love to study cinema. I have a lot of references, but it’s always like Buñuel and Jodorosky. Even Miyazaki or Yasujiro Ozu. He’s a big influence. There’s a lot of Yasujiro Ozu in this movie, but it’s not obvious.

— I think there’s a bit of “The Exterminating Angel, where they enter the room two or three times. There’s repetition…”

Pons: Exactly!

— And then like in “Viridiana” where they pose like the Last Supper and where you do Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa.

Pons: No, I think it’s clear.

— And that to me is very much like Buñuel.

Pons: And also I think this is a romantic image. I mean, the 19th century romantic pictures in France. So I took the wagon, it’s a romantic element, in the way of the people, the town, el pueblo. It represents the people, but it’s not socialism. It’s romanticism. You know what I mean? And Gericault was romantic. And I took this image… there are more similarities with Gericault’s than with “Viridiana” maybe.

— But for example, Gericault, a romantic―his picture became political.

Pons: Yeah. Exactly! It was censored for a long time.

— So, do you have some political aspirations with your film?

Pons: I wrote the first sketch of the script in 2004 and in 2009 when we were shooting and the reality changed a lot. And just in the way that reality has become more similar to the movie, not the movie to the reality. You know what I mean? When we were shooting we had this responsibility. Because we said, now the reality has changed. And the picture is more similar to reality. There’s this similarity, so now we’re on the wagon and there’s a criticism about many things.

Edgar Barroso: Can I add something that Chango mentioned in previous interviews? I think what is really interesting about the movie is that it does represent a lot of the problems that Mexico is having now. Like drugs, military people among civilians, poverty, isolation and so on. And yet, he only puts them there so people can interpret whatever they want and go deeper as they want to go. Because many movies right now, many directors now are touching these subjects so much about violence and stuff. And I think Chango didn’t want to make another movie about migration and drugs and stuff like that. But at the same time he used humor to actually put those things there more for an act of reflection and not so much as a proactive thing. He doesn’t have a posture about anything. It’s not satire.
The Compass is Carried by the Dead Man ©2011 TIFF
Pons: It’s a way to make things. A process

Barroso: On thing that’s very common in Mexican culture is that you approach problems through humor. We laugh about pretty much anything, even death. Let’s talk about a dead guy, that’s beginning to smell in a wagon.

Pons: It’s like there are too many readings of the movie. I’m not the one that’s going to impose the readings. That’s the rich thing about movies. And you can read a lot of things in them. Looking at “Last Year in Marienbad” you can imagine whatever you want. It’s like “Rayuela” by Cortázar, you can make your own idea of the film, so that’s what I wanted to do. And I think I got it. I am already now having a lot of readings, different readings. It’s very interesting because the feedback it’s like more interesting now. It’s still alive, you know? It’s very very interesting and I’m so exited about that.

— I think, again, the reading of the film, kind of like Buñuel, is that you have images, you have types of people, you have situations that are somewhere between symbolic and absurd. The symbolism is not hitting you on the head.

Pons: For example here’s an anecdote. Marco Perez, the actor who plays Rogelio, the goatherd. One day he came to me during shooting. “Tell me what did you mean with this dog? You know the dog that’s following us.” And I said, “Well, when I was younger I had a dog.”

Barroso: I knew that dog!

Pons: It was a dog that fell from a window and he broke his leg. It was very funny how she moved, like (imitates a loose, broken limb with his arm). It was funny. A funny image. So I said, “Well, it’s a funny image.” You know. One-eyed kid, electric shocks, you know… And he was like… he had an entire interpretation of it. It was like, if you want to, why not? Because we played a lot with the “why not” thing, as Ozcar can tell you about it. At first it was like a problem, but then it was like “why don’t we make a shot this way.” And he said, “Well, you better do it…” And I always said, “Well, why not, why not? We’re pretending to make a film, a personal film. So, why not this way?” So we got this film, as you’ve seen. We got this 360-degree shot and too many things. If you watch it shot by shot you’ll see this “why not” thing. Ozcar can tell you more.

Ozcar Ramirez Gonzalez: What Chango is telling you is how the process was built based on freedom. He’s the most free [director] in my life I’ve ever worked with, ever produced. Every time Chango would come with crazy ideas. Because we had the script – and the script was crazy enough – but then he would come and say, “I have this incredible idea. Why don’t we do this thing?” And it’s completely… I just don’t get it. I always said, like, “OK. What do you want to say with this? What is the meaning of this? Why do you want to…?” And he would always answer, “Why not?” That was the explanation. Why not? And then would say, “Why not?” then go and do it and no problem.
The Compass is Carried by the Dead Man ©2011 TIFF
Pons: He was very worried. At that time

Gonzalez: I’ll tell you this story. I think you’ll find it very funny. When we were shooting the film… we worked for three years, trying to understand what he was trying to do and getting the money. But when we were doing the shooting, I had to travel. I just went to the first day of the shooting. The second day I traveled to Amsterdam because I was presenting a documentary I made – there. So I had to go. So, I asked the assistant editor to send me all the rushes of the film, so I could see it. The first day I received, like, 8 minutes, which is such a small amount of time for the first day. So I called her and said, “You only sent me one camera roll, so send me the rest.” And she said, “No, this is all.” And I freaked out. “What do you mean this is all?” “Yeah, this is all that they shot.” “But there are no close-ups. There is one scene that he shot only once.” And she said “Yeah, but he liked it.” “What do you mean, he liked it?” You have to shoot these scenes several times. Then I called him very worried, like “Chango, you need to shoot everything. I bought a lot of…”

Pons: “You need to shoot more!”

Gonzalez: That was the phrase. OK. So I said, “I bought a lot of film for you. Use it. It’s there. Don’t worry. Go and shoot more.” And he was saying, “No, no, take it easy. I don’t need more.” Next day, I received two camera rolls. And I’m freaking out. My God, this film is not gonna… you know we’re not gonna be able to edit it. And I insist. And I insist and I receive an email from him saying, “Ozcar, today I did what you told me and shot a lot more. So check the material.” And when I saw the material – I received two camera rolls of the film ―and then I reviewed two camera rolls where he shot himself doing tricks on the skateboard.

Pons: In slow motion.

Gonzalez: He wanted the crew to show himself doing tricks in slow motion. And then I thought like, OK, I will relax. I will trust him. I will let him do whatever he wants. But his way to tell me to relax is “today I shoot a lot of material. Take a look at it.” And I see him doing tricks that have nothing to do with the film. So, this is the kind of relationship that we started, like… let’s let it go. So I relaxed and said, “I trust you.” So now we have this film and I feel so proud of it.

Originally published on the Tokyo International Film Festival website, 2011.11.02.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

November 6, 2011 at 12:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized

TIFF – Japanese Eyes “Damn Life” Interview with Hitoshi Kitagawa (Director)

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An interview I did for the Tokyo International Film Festival.

Damn Life ©2011 TIFF
“Damn Life” won the Grand Prize at the PIA Film Festival this year, a prestigious honor and approval for new talent in the world of Japanese cinema. Hitoshi Kitagawa’s first feature takes an extreme situation, looking at it with dark incisive humor and great visual style.

— I see that you’ve studied literature and were involved in theater.

Hitoshi Kitagawa: I studied art history, under the department of literature. And philosophy.

— Did you study filmmaking, formally?

Kitagawa: I didn’t actually, especially study film production, but I was in drama club when I was at the university. As a member of the drama club I was in films that my classmates made at that time. But after that I went to graduate school and studied filmmaking there. But I’ve never really officially studied any film production. It was more about the philosophy and research. It was more on that side.

— I noticed [from the Busan Film Festival catalog] that you directed videos for the Tokuo Theatre Company.

Kitagawa: So Tokuo is actually a theatrical group and it was in one of their performances they showed some video that I was actually involved in filming and editing. And they also have a DVD of that. So it’s actually a short film, but it was for that company.

— So just one?

Kitagawa: In terms of being involved in editing other people’s films I’ve probably been involved in more than a hundred, but in terms of directing a writing scripts this is the first.

— “Damn Life” has a very theatrical feel to it. Did this work in working in theatre influence your ideas for making films?

Kitagawa: You may be correct when you say a theatrical feel to it, because I was also involved in directing the film that was shown in that theatrical performance. I also acted in it. So, I have that experience and also when you’re looking at a theatrical play, it’s like they’re performing in a box. Camera angles don’t change at all. So watching theatrical performances from the audience point of view, I got many hints in terms of filmmaking from there as well, and also in directing actors, as well as my own experience of acting. So maybe that’s what you felt seeing “Damn Life.”
Damn Life ©2011 TIFF
— Can you tell me about Keita Kasatsugu, the actor who plays the lead role, Kotani. Is he someone you worked with theatre before?

Kitagawa: He was a couple of grades younger than me in college and we were in the same drama club.

— And some of the other actors?

Kitagawa: So this year, as you know, I was given an award at the PIA Film Festival for this film. But last year I submitted a different film. Some of the people who came to see film asked me if they could appear in my next film and they automatically we cast in it.

— “Post Girl” was last year’s film. This year you made “Damn Life.” “Post Girl” deals with a suicide and a person’s reaction. “Damn Life” deals with a drowning and the main character’s reaction. Both deal with traumas. This seems to be a theme that you’re exploring. Could you tell me a little about your ideas about traumas and how they affect people.

Kitagawa: For “Post Girl,” at that time I was very interested in revenge. I thought revenge was a very clear objective in terms of making my film. The traumatic event was just for me to justify the revenge. So that was the purpose. It was more revenge than focusing on traumatic events. I myself am not very tall. I went to an all-boys’ school for junior high and high school. I wouldn’t say I had traumatic events, but I had quite a lot of regrets from my past. And so, with that in mind, I thought of revenge. Many people have regrets of their past, so I thought looking at someone’s life from that angle would also be interesting.
— You take this idea of a man who had a trauma and now does everything he’s told. He’s humiliated. He’s bullied and turns to violence. Is this kind of a purging of your own feelings?

Kitagawa: My experiences weren’t that bad. I had seen a lot of people going through that kind of experience. And in terms of making films, if it’s small bullying, it’s not interesting on film – if you make it into a story. So I thought if this is going to be a part of what’s taking place in this person’s life that it really should come out more strongly. That was the purpose in terms of making it into a film to have the audience really understand what was going on rather than something very subtle.

— Did you go to Pusan to see your film?

Kitagawa: Yes.

— Have you seen the film with Japanese audiences?

Kitagawa: Yes.

— Have you seen different reactions from the way Korean to the way Japanese audiences react to your film?

Kitagawa: This is my impression. I thought it was totally different. The Korean audience was very honest with their feelings. They were open with what they thought. Their emotions were very clear compared to the Japanese audience. In the last scene where the neck is slashed and there’s all the blood, the Japanese audience laughed. I thought that would be a laughing point. The Korean audience thought it was very gruesome. They were a little scared about that scene, so the reaction was quite different. Maybe the Japanese audience has a cynical look. Maybe like – What are you going to make? What are we going to be looking at? Whereas maybe the Korean audience was more honest. They accepted what they saw. So maybe that is the main difference between the Japanese and the Koreans.

— As an American, I had a more Korean type reaction. Bullying, humiliation is all over the world, but different cultures react differently.

Kitagawa: So, maybe Japanese audiences really know that this is fictional. This is just a story. And so that’s how they’re looking at it. Whereas the Korean audience maybe felt that they were in the scene with him and experiencing the same thing. So maybe that’s why their emotions came out differently.

— Apart from a psychological portrait and a philosophical investigation of how far violence and bullying takes people, did you think of making this film as a social commentary on life in Japan?

Kitagawa: In Japan they use the word “KY” which means “kuuki wo yomu.” Meaning “one’s expected to get the vibe from people.” That’s a word that used often in Japan. So in that sense you have to be aware of what’s really going on and sort of agree to what’s going on, rather than saying something different. They think in that way that you’re really understanding the vibe around you. So, therefore, I’m saying that if you took that to the extreme that maybe people, in terms of the character Kotani, could turn out to be like that. I wanted to investigate it from that angle.
Damn Life ©2011 TIFF
— You’re the director, cinematographer, editor, everything. The visual style of the film is completely different and interesting compared to many films I’ve seen. Could you tell me about your film, art historical, photographic influences?

Kitagawa: In terms of film directors, I love the films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Takeshi Kitano and it could be that there is some influence from those two directors. In terms of cinematography, I’m became one because there was no one else to fill that role. I would prefer if there was someone who was more of a professional cinematographer there, then what you would see visually would have been quite different. I would have liked to explore that as well, but unfortunately right now, I’m the only person available to do it and it’s what you see right now. And in terms of art history, I was interested in impressionism, but I don’t know if that has a direct influence or not. I’m 29 right now and I still read manga and so maybe that has a stronger influence on what I create.

Originally published on the Tokyo International Film Festival website, 2011.11.02.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

November 5, 2011 at 12:49 am

Posted in Uncategorized

TIFF – Japanese Eyes “TOKYO DRIFTER” interview with Tetsuaki Matsue (Director)

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An interview I did for the Tokyo International Film Festival.

TOKYO DRIFTER ©2011 TIFFIn “Tokyo Drifter,” director Tetsuaki Matsue follows singer Kenta Maeno over a rainy night throughout Tokyo as he sings a set of songs reflecting on life, love and most of all, Tokyo itself. The haunting images of a darkened post-Tohoku disaster Tokyo serve as the backdrop Tetsuaki’s meditation on Japan in 2011. In one scene, Maeno-san zooms down a busy street on his motorcycle singing AKB 48’s hit “Heavy Rotation.”

— So, how do you feel about AKB 48?

Tesuaki Matsue: I’m not that much of an enthusiastic fan of group. But like most pop songs, wherever you are you hear the song.

— I think “Heavy Rotation” is a great song.

Matsue: Me as well.

— Were you thinking about “Tokyo Drifter” before the earthquake and the tsunami or is this film your and Maeno-san’s reaction to what happened?

Matsue: Neither. I wasn’t thinking about it before. I wasn’t even thinking about making this into a film even after. I was in Korea when the earthquake happened and came back to Japan on the 23rd of March. So I had heard about what went on and had some people asking, “Why aren’t you there making a documentary about what’s happening?” I also knew that my friend, another director, was in Fukushima making a documentary. I also had a producer contacting me, requesting me to go to the stricken area to film, but I wasn’t thinking about being involved in making a film about that, at all, at that time. And I told the producer clearly, that I can’t make a film under this kind of situation. When I arrived at Haneda airport, I was surprised that it was so dark. I live in Nakano, so I passed through Shinjuku to go back home and I realized that it was dark in those areas as well. Everyone was saying, of course, that it was the Tohoku area that was stricken by the earthquake and that there were many victims, but I felt at that time that Tokyo was also a victim of the earthquake. That’s what I thought at that time. But I thought Tokyo was rather appealing under that situation because I had been to various international film festivals and saw that in Germany at 8 o’clock all the stores close. The stores close on Sundays and there is no lighting on the displays. So, at night, it’s natural that there’re no lights. I mean, it’s dark – and that was one of the appealing points about these countries. So from that perspective, I thought that although it’s under this situation, Tokyo looked rather appealing to me. The turning point of me wanting to make a film was that on April 10th in Koenji there were protesters demonstrating about the nuclear disaster. I was there from the beginning to the end. There were all these people protesting. On the other hand there were people at that same time saying, “If you’re going to protest, why didn’t you protest when TEPCO built the nuclear power plants?” I thought that in current day Japan that unless people really stood up and voiced their opinions, nothing was going to change in Japan. That’s what I strongly felt. So on that day, I, as a filmmaker and as an individual, I felt that I could feel something in common with what the protesters were talking about. I went home and it was the same day as the election and Shintaro Ishihara was elected right away. It was on the news that he’d be the mayor again of Tokyo and the newscasters were saying, “We need to have him build a strong Tokyo.” They were saying that they were predicting a big earthquake would hit Japan or the Tokyo area within 30 years with a 70 or 80 percent possibility. Just a while ago they were saying that this is a catastrophe that happens once in 1000 years. And I was thinking that if I eventually had children as well I thought – a strong Tokyo? Is this what people are expecting? I mean there are different values. And I felt it was very strange that somebody would be asking for the mayor to make a strong Tokyo – that Tokyo needs to be much stronger. On the other hand, I thought, it was OK. You could be weak. You didn’t have to be strong if you’ve got different values. I thought that Tokyo the way it was under this situation was something I liked. I thought it was something I would want to make into a movie, so I called my crew right away and told them, “Hey, I’m interested in making a film.” That was on April 10 – from the demonstration that started in Koenji.

— So then, that was April 10. On May 28 you made the film. How did you and Maeno-san collaborate in developing the film? I know you’ve had an old relationship with “Live Tape,” but how did you develop this idea?

Matsue: I didn’t want to pursue perfection with this film. And with Ryuto Kondo, who had just filmed “My Back Page” – he has a lot of talent and is very skilled – but rather than try to pursue perfection, I suggested we go back to the origin of making films and start with a handi-cam. And take the film from that perspective, rather than trying to target perfection with the film itself. And so we shot it with auto-focus and was like, everything you see in the film – whether it’s out of focus, noisy and everything, I thought it was the reflection of everyone during those times. People were scared of the rain, the radiation. And I thought, filming everything naturally sort of reflected everyone’s feelings at that time. So, we went ahead and shot with autofocus. And when I was in Korea, I was looking at youtube. There were actually a lot of amateurs who were in the stricken area, shooting the tsunami coming in. They’re amateurs of course. I thought that is what I had to do in order to reflect the current situation. So, in other words, it’s like trying to minimize the means of making the film. With the scenes that I saw on Youtube, I don’t think it’s correct to say that they influenced me a lot – because people were in a very panic-stricken situation and they were doing what they thought would be the best to do – but that had an impact on me. If you really went there as a documentary film crew you would be asking people to help you. You would be using lights, electricity. In that situation it was very difficult to get electricity. When you’re making a full documentary, you’re causing a lot of problems for people that are around you. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to minimize the means and get as much as possible in a natural state.

— I thought of youtube also when I saw your film. But the sound was very good. And there’s an interesting counterpoint between images that are out of focus, the rain, the fog and then very good sound. The film takes place over one night and it’s interesting as documentary vs. performance art. So from say, 10 o’clock until the morning, you’re going to make this movie, no matter what. Can you comment about this aesthetic, this idea of this type of documentary?

Matsue: As for sound, you have to think about… oh, this is going to be screened at a theater. So, the audience has to be able to sit through the film. The sound can’t be something uncomfortable. In terms of being out of focus or not very clear, that didn’t really matter, but sound is very important to me, so that’s what I’m focusing on right now. If I had money, if I had time, that’s what I would focus on – is to trying to get the sound perfect. In terms of visuals I think the audience has a capacity – they accept different levels of visuals, because we have youtube and all kinds of different media we see different levels of perfection. But in terms of sound, the audience cannot come to terms with something that still uncomfortable to hear, so sound is very important to me. So I went back after shooting those several hours. I had Maeno-san sing again, so I could pick up his voice more clearly. As well in the beginning where you hear the sound at Studio Alta. On of my friends had my camera on the day the earthquake happened and he was out actually picking up the visuals and the sound. But I thought the visuals had too much impact, so I told my sound person to just make sure we could use the sound of this footage. I really don’t have a lot of influence from other documentary directors, but “Gummo,” by Harmony Korine and “The Dark Night” were two films I watched over and over again before making this film. I wanted to get a sense of how you shoot reality and I thought these were good influences. “Gummo,” yeah, for after the typhoon and how people survive. I like the style of how it captures people. Maeno-san is one of my heroes. Like in the last scene of “The Dark Night,” the Joker is the town of Tokyo. Maeno-san is on his bike, driving away. Maeno-san himself is like Batman. I just wanted to use that, but I didn’t tell my crew about it. If I told Maeno-san about it, Batman would be on his mind too much. I you reference different films to the crew, it’s not good. You probably wouldn’t think of “The Dark Night” or “Gummo” after watching my film.

— So you didn’t want Maeno-san to think of Batman, but with the title of the film, “TOKYO DRIFTER,” did you think of Joe Shishido?

Matsue: “Tokyo Drifter” was a series I was writing in a magazine, so that’s where the title came from. I liked the title so much I wanted to use it somewhere. So, when I decided to make a film, I said, “Oh, I want to use this as the title.” It was the editor in Seijun Suzuki’s film that decided to use “Tokyo Drifter.” It had nothing to do with my idea, but mine goes back to [photographer] Shinya Fujiwara’s “Tokyo hyo-ryu” – also meaning “Tokyo Drifter.” Maybe foreigners always think of Seijun Suzuki when you hear the word Tokyo Drifter, but people here automatically think of the comedy, “The Drifters.”

— Were the songs written for the movie or songs written over the years?

Matsue: These were all songs Maeno-san composed before the earthquake, but the last song, “New Morning” is something that he was singing before the earthquake – last year actually. After the earthquake the song itself had a different meaning for me. While I was in Korea, I was listening to this song. It was during a time when you could hear people being very afraid of the radiation. So, it started to take a different meaning. From the very beginning I asked Maeno-san, “I want you to sing that song at the end of this film” because I thought it had an impact. There were several songs that Maeno-san did compose after the earthquake – Tokyo 2011, for example… the Coca Cola song. I wrote the words to “Tokyo Drifter.” When I was location hunting, Maeno-san said “You have to write the lyrics, because it will also give you an idea of what the film is about.” And that’s why I was forced to write the lyrics of the song “Tokyo Drifter.” And reading the lyrics, Maeno-san more deeply understood what the film was about.

— The locations, some are well known. Others are convenience stores and generic locations. Can you tell me about why you chose these different places?

Matsue: Some of my crew that came from outside of Tokyo. For them, Tokyo Tower was symbolic of Tokyo. I went to Roppongi as well as Ginza. In trying to capture the darkness of Tokyo, it didn’t mean going some place and filming it because it was dark. That wasn’t what I wanted to do. So I thought of convenience stores, like 7-11 where usually the neon lights are very bright, but they had to turn off quite a lot of the lights… that I thought had a lot of impact. I was talking about it with the crew and decided we wanted to shoot places that normally would be very light, but because of this situation they had to turn the lights down. That’s how we came up with this idea. In order to capture the darkness of Tokyo as it was at that time was not to choose places that were dark in the beginning, but to choose places that would have normally been more illuminated. We had to find a route that we could shoot in one night. Shinjuku and Shibuya were good – and also Meidaimae, where Maeno-san used to live before. So that’s how we chose the locations.

©2011 TIFF

— And the final location, on the river?

Matsue: So that was in Kawaguchi City in Saitama, across the river. I wanted to get a shot of Tokyo. That’s why I went to Kawaguchi. I thought if I went out of Tokyo I could capture the whole city. And to me, rivers play a very important role in films. When you see a flowing river you can imagine what’s outside that frame. So I thought it was very important. Rivers play a big role in expanding the imagination of the audience. The ocean is too big, but with the river you can image there are people living outside this frame along the banks of the river. So that’s why I thought the river was very important.

— The film is like a love letter to Tokyo. And interesting and positive response to the tragedy of 3.11. Anything more to say about that?

Matsue: The Tokyo now and the Tokyo then is different. In May everyone was on edge. They didn’t know what was happening. I prefer Tokyo then in May, rather than the Tokyo we’re in now.

Originally published on the Tokyo International Film Festival website, 2011.11.02.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

November 4, 2011 at 12:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

TIFF – Japanese Eyes “About the Pink Sky” interview with Keiichi Kobayashi (Director)

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An interview I did for the Tokyo International Film Festival.

“About the Pink Sky”©2011 TIFFIn “About the Pink Sky,” director Keiichi Kobayashi takes on the genre of “teen films” with a new perspective. Reminiscent of the French New Wave films of the 1960s, the rambling narrative follows Izumi (Ai Ikeda) and a pair of her girlfriends against a suburban backdrop. The film is shot in black and white.

— Why black and white?

Director Keiichi Kobayashi:The film is structured in such a way that what you see is a recollection, remembered by the main character in 2035. Therefore this is a memory from the past. The present doesn’t last. It keeps changing, right? The present turns into the past right away, every second. Because it’s the past it’s in black and white.

— It even looks a bit old-fashioned. Black and white also makes us look at the world differently.

Director:What you’re looking at right now turns into the past, as I said earlier. And to live can only be recognized through death, I feel. I wanted to share that in a very soft way through this film. In the film there’s a part where they write a newspaper article by introducing different faces in the town. And they walk around looking for such faces – and just like that, looking at your town or a landscape in a different way, i.e. in this case in black and white, it brings you a new perspective. That’s what I tried to do.

— Speaking of new perspectives, this story is a teenage story. On the Japanese commercial screen there are many many teenage stories. What attracted you to this kind of film and what do you hope to add to the genre of teenage film.

Director:Well, you’re right, there are many films with teenage players in them. Because of that I wanted to challenge the genre. When I looked at films by other filmmakers I often wondered why they make such films, many of which look back nostalgically at youth. I wanted to make something that’s not a recollection of youth, but rather something that suggests different ways of living to teenagers and that’s why I chose teenagers. Also in other films of the genre they tend to focus on the shining moments of youth, for example. But again, I like to suggest a different way of life through the main character, Izumi, who looks at the world through her own eyes but in the film doesn’t take action, at least not much voluntarily, and towards the end she tries to take a small step. That’s the last scene. Whether or not that touches people’s hearts, I don’t know, but I tried to show, through her first action, her change and growth. Also other films of the genre tend to focus on distance between people and how they wade through different types of relationships. Some get hurt and some do different things. But I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to focus on the theme of self-expression – how to express one’s self through what they do or say.

— I think the 3 girls have a natural feeling and chemistry. I think you have a very good eye and ear for how friends relate and their levels of power. Could you tell me about the script and how it developed? Did you talk with teenagers?

Director:I wrote it from scratch. I worked on it every night and I didn’t particularly listen to high schools students’ stories at all. But as I said earlier, it’s the kind of high school student I wanted to suggest. I had a more or less definite image of how that person would be, so it wasn’t all that difficult. It went smoothly. We did a lot of rehearsing. And we took about 20 takes, at least, per scene.

“About the Pink Sky” ©2011 TIFF

— Is Ai Ikeda a professional actress?

Director:Ai has an agent, but this was more or less the first time she acted.

— She’s great!

Director:Thank you! (in English)

— And the other two?

Director:All of them tried acting, more or less, for the first time. Reiko Fujiwara, the girl who’s the peacemaker, she did work as a gravure model, but she also didn’t have any acting experience. Nor did Ena Koshino, the tall one.

— And so, when you worked with them, was there any improvisation, or did you follow the script exactly?

Director:Well, it was true to the script. No improvisation. Although I did change some of the lines each morning after having done lots of rehearsals. If something just didn’t feel right we would change it that morning or add a new line or something. To be frank with you, I didn’t think they were on the level where they could pull off improvisation.

— But still, they were very good.

Director:Really? I’m so happy to hear that.

— You’ve made totally different genre films before “About the Pink Sky.” What inspired you to make this teenage story?

Director:The early films were just videos, not films. They weren’t things I really wanted to make. I did it for experience, therefore the content wasn’t something I particularly liked. So almost in reaction against that, I wanted to make a film in the way I wanted to. Although there is one wonderful thing I found through the making of those videos. That was to have met my producer, Mr. Harada.

— When I saw “About the Pink Sky” I saw things that reminded me of older films. Can you tell me what director, films or styles that may have influenced your filmmaking?

Director:Well, when I was working on the script I felt the entertainment element should definitely be there and that I learned from Kurosawa’s earlier films, his black and white period. At that time the screen had so much power and attraction to it and his characters were so full of like. Of course I can’t reach that kind of level presently, but I’d like to emulate that. Another master I have in mind is Kenji Mizoguchi. He, as you know, depicted women characters a lot. And I believe he often depicted his ideal women characters in his films. That influenced me. And as for the long takes that you see in the film, I wasn’t particularly thinking of Mizoguchi’s style, I just ended up not being able to cut, because I was drawn into the atmosphere of the action, of the world that they were creating. Actually, before we started shooting Hiroshi Harada, the producer and I went to visit of Mizoguchi’s grave on the anniversary of his death. We offered incense and prayed and asked him for his support for our film’s success, for a successful production. On the way back, I said to Mr. Harada, “We didn’t hear any words from him.” And then Mr. Harada pointed out that my pants’ zipper was completely open. And he said, “That must be the message from Kenji Mizoguchi saying you have to expose yourself totally in making this film.” So I feel I’ve put in everything I possibly can into this film.

Originally published on the Tokyo International Film Festival website.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

November 3, 2011 at 5:48 am

Posted in Uncategorized

TIFF – Japanese Eyes “No Reply” Interview with Satoru Hirohara (Director)

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An interview I did for the Tokyo International Film Festival.

“No Reply”©2011 TIFF
Satoru Hirohara’s debut feature, “Good Morning to the World” won the Dragons & Tigers Award for Young Cinema at the Vancouver International Film Festival last year. His new film “No Reply” is a bittersweet meditation on the ups and downs of Yu and Mike, a 20-something couple. We sat and talked about the film, the creative process and how Hirohara sees himself as a voice from a new generation of filmmakers.

—Your previous film “Good Morning to the World!!” talks about high school students. This film talks about 20-somethings. Are you documenting your own life and generation as you make your films. Is this your project?

Satoru Hirohara (Hirohara): When I make films I always imagine my own generation as my audience. As I should grow and as my films should grow, I guess this should happen. Actually the protagonist of my next film is about 30.

—Are you making a big statement about your generation, or are you concentrating just on interesting stories?

Hirohara: Within myself these two things aren’t separate. They’re different sides of the same coin. And it’s not as if I have a clear message to my generation. In fact, the fact that there is nothing clear is one important theme surrounding our generation. However there is a concept that when you’re growing into an adult you have to make your position clear – that you’re for an idea or against and idea – but I’m both afraid of going there as well as feeling hesitant about it, because I feel we shouldn’t jump into it but should think more by staying where we are. It’s a struggle and that’s how I was feeling as I made this film.

—Could you tell me about your influences, teachers and films that are important for your filmmaking?

Hirohara: There are many people and many films that gave me support and influenced me, but if I’m to choose one in particular at the early stage of my journey I came across a film called “Eureka” by Aoyama Shinji and that really really moved me and I felt there are so many things I don’t know about films and there must be something, some great depth to films that I’d never thought about or never realized. I don’t know what that is but it looked incredible. That’s how I was influenced by him.

—Let’s talk about “No Reply.” I think in Japanese, it’s “No Need to Reply.”

Hirohara: You’re right. The correct translation is “no need to reply’ but somehow “No Reply” sounded cooler.

—The main characters, Yu and Mike, are formless. They don’t seem to know what they’re doing. They often play games. Some are meaningless, some have more intent. Can you talk about playing games?

Hirohara: Well, rather than playing games, when it comes to these two characters, I would call it more like trying to get attention from each other, or trying to communicate. And they do play games, as in trying to make music, etc. but that could be a form of killing time for them, and maybe that’s all they could do, if you look at it critically. And at the very end that takes a shape. It may not have sounded like music to some people, but in my mind it was the music, a form of expression that takes shape at the end.

—This relationship looks like it’s falling apart. It’s very difficult. In your imagination will this relationship end or continue?

Hirohara: Ah, that’s difficult. When I made the film, I felt that this is what they have to go through in order to separate properly. And at the end they would go separate ways, each in their own way, and that’s how I made the film. But when I watched the film on screen today, I thought maybe their relationship would continue. When Yu come backs to pick up her stuff maybe they will decide to try again. And that’s how I’ve been thinking about it recently. They’ll take the next step. Today I was imagining her being pregnant and making a sequel to it. Then the man could say, “Is that really my child?” And the woman would say, “What makes you say things like that?” and they’ll have another argument.

“No Reply” ©2011 TIFF

—The characters look very similar – similar faces, the same haircuts. In fact, I sometimes confused them on screen. They don’t seem to have a sexual relationship, they just fight. They almost seem like brother and sister.

Hirohara: As soon as the film starts you see them fighting. But in order to express the fact that they have been in a relationship for a long, I made them look similar, as in the case of a married couple who’ve been together for a long time. Also the roles are kind of merged together.

—Mike, he records noises, but by the end of the film it comes together into a song. Is there an analogy to your own filmmaking method? Is this how you create your films?

Hirohara: I think you’re absolutely right. There is an analogy. Yes, at the end of the film you hear a song that includes all kinds of sounds you’ve already heard, including the recorder – played by her, and the noises that he was making, opening and shutting of the windows and so on, and all of that came together and turned into a song. That’s what I wanted to do most with this film.

—Are Yu and Mike based on people you know? Are they total fiction? Their situation – is it something you know about or something you’ve made up?

Hirohara: I never throw eggs at others (laughs), however I’ve taken lots of clues from my own experiences as well as things my friends told me. Of course in real life you hold yourself back more, but as this is a film, I didn’t do that – either with my own feelings or their actions toward each other.

—Yu seems to take on more responsibility. She’s in and out of love with Mike. He seems quite irresponsible all the time.

Hirohara: It’s difficult. I don’t know if I see like that. It’s true, they’re looking for different things. Where did you think Yu was more responsible?

—She tries to start conversation. She takes actions, even if it’s only leaving. She seems to have a better job, something that may be a career.

Hirohara: Well, he may appear irresponsible. That’s true. But from a kinder perspective, you might say he’s more in love with her than she is with him. To him, she’s everything. That’s all he can see. Whereas she wants to go onto the next step.

—When she escapes. He chases her down the street. The song in the background is Yuuyake Koyake. Was this on purpose?

Hirohara: Yes, it was on purpose. We recorded it later. I like that song. In many municipalities that song is played on loudspeakers precisely at 5 pm. Well, things happen between the two and that propels the whole film, but I wanted to show the audience things that happen outside their relationship. The evening came. It’s 5 o’clock.

—It’s the song is for the children to go home.

Hirohara: Yes, for sure.

Originally published for the Tokyo International Film Festival web site.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

November 2, 2011 at 5:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized