Showing posts with label Interviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Interviews. Show all posts

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

INTERVIEW: Shinya Tsukamoto discusses "Kotoko", singer Cocco, animation and more

Shinya Tsukamoto at the 36th Toronto International Film Festival

In the late 1989 Shinya Tsukamoto went from making low budget 8mm films and leading a renegade street theatre troupe in Tokyo to being a bright light on the international film festival scene with his man vs. machine masterpiece "Tetsuo the Iron Man". Throughout the 90's Tsukamoto's transformative and often confrontational brand of surreal "body horror", as exemplified by films such as "Tetsuo the Body Hammer", "Tokyo Fist" and "Bullet Ballet", had critics calling him the "new" David Cronenberg or David Lynch. By the end of the decade, though, Tsukamoto was no longer being compared to these veteran filmmakers. Instead he had become the master of a style that was being imitated by young filmmakers at home in Japan (Shozin Fukui, Masato Tsujioka) and abroad (Darren Aronofsky). Tsukamoto would experiment with and expand upon his signature style throughout the 00's, gaining critical critical praise for such films as 2004's "Vital" and 2005's "Haze". He even flirted with mainstream studio success with his two Nightmare Detective" films the third "Tetsuo" film, Tetsuo the Bullet Man", with mixed results.

Now, after nearly a quarter of a century after he synthesized flesh and steel with "Tetsuo the Iron Man" Shinya Tsukamoto is moving on to a new chapter in his filmmaking career; a new chapter that sees him turning from the urban jungle of Tokyo to the green jungles and blue ocean of Okinawa. Accompanying him on this journey is Okinawan singer/ songwriter Cocco who portrays a mentally unstable single mother in Tsukamoto's new film "Kotoko" which had its world premiere at the 68th Venice Film Festival, where it won the Orizzonti Award for Feature Film, and North American premiere at the 36th annual Toronto International Film Festival(read Matthew Hardstaff's review of "Kotoko" here). The J-Film Pow-Wow's Chris MaGee and special translator Akane Saito were honoured to sit down and talk with Shinya Tsukamoto about "Kotoko", his street theatre roots, and his hopes to work on more animation projects. We would like to thank Kiyo Joo of Gold View Co., Ltd., for making this interview possible.

Cocco in "Kotoko"

CM: You worked with Cocco on a 24-minute film "Cocco uta no o sanpo (Cocco Song Walk)". How did both of you go from that project to "Kotoko"?

ST: When I shot Cocco's music video, she happily accepted my direction. Her positive attitude helped me to ask her to play a role in my movie. That's how I could start "Kotoko". Honestly, I wanted to make a movie with her for a long time. If she hadn't offered me the opportunity to make her music video, I would have never got the chance to cast her for my movie.

CM: You have a history of casting non-actors in your films -- author Yasutaka Tsutsui [in 'Gemini'], singer Hitomi [in 'Nightmare Detective'], dancer Nami Tsukamoto [in 'Vital'], photographer Eric Bossick [in 'Tetsuo the Bullet Man'] and now Cocco. What do you see in these people that leads you to cast them in key roles, as opposed to professional actors? Cocco in particular is an unusual choice, but one which seems to have paid off very well.

ST: I'm not particularly motivated to cast non-actors. It's not my goal to cast only professional actors either. Everyone in this world has the potential to be cast. For my films I would rather cast without any restrictions. My point of view is whether she or he has a strong “presence” —this is the most important thing to me. Even if they aren’t professional actors, they can handle playing their role once we start working together. I regard “presence” as the most important factor for casting.

CM: I noticed young director Ryugo Nakamura [15-year-old director of 'The Catcher on the Shore'] in "Kotoko".

ST: He is Cocco's friend. Ah, no no no, she gave him her song for "The Catcher on the Shore".

Dancer Nami Tsukamoto in "Vital" (2004)

CM: There is a common theme in your films of physical expression, both violence, but also dancing and, now with "Kotoko", singing. Do you see these as cathartic for your characters, or for you as a filmmaker?

ST: It's for my own catharsis. My works are based on pursuing the possibility of human body. I wanted to express life in the city by showing a human body turned into iron ['Tetsuo the Iron Man'(1989)], or in a dream-like reality, you would sense the reality of the body through boxing ['Tokyo Fist'(1995)]. “The metropolis and the human” used to be my main theme until I made ['Tetsuo the Bullet Man' (2010)]. Now I'm trying to move on to the next stage. Besides, Cocco is a singer, but she wanted to become a ballerina in the very beginning. Since her interest is to seek the potential of the human body, I realized Cocco's and my ideas were very much the same.

CM: So it comes from Cocco as an actress, and her as a person… or the way of your own expression?

ST: Well, I rather say both. Her songs were indispensable in this film because Cocco is such a great singer. I interviewed her extensively before I started writing the script. After I created the story, I showed the script to her and asked her if there was anything in it that didn’t fit with her thoughts. I removed every part that didn’t suit her. In that way Cocco was already Kotoko when we started shooting, She took quite a lot of the lead herself.

CM: Digital technology seems to have allowed you to embrace a new, almost naturalistic style in "Kotoko" with long takes of certain scenes that would have been difficult with film cameras. How has the new digital shooting technology affected your style?

ST: I am a director who likes the medium of film. However, it's really difficult to cover the budget for filming. Besides, the digital technology is far more convenient than conventional film cameras. It allows you to shoot much more simply than with the you'd use to working with film. It's also very convenient for editing. Now the visual quality is really close to as film has as well. Sure, I still like film, but I don't hesitate to use digital technology. I suppose now we are in the transitional period between film and digital.

AS: Would you consider to keep using film for your project?

ST: I don't have plan to use film right now. Sometimes I consider to use it again, but I would rather choose digital nowadays.

CM: When I was watching "Kotoko"' I noticed you are back in Okinawa. In "Vital" (2004) you went to Okinawa. And now you returned to Okinawa with "Kotoko". I know Cocco is from Okinawa, but is there something about Okinawa that fascinates you or inspires you?

ST: I knew Cocco was born in Okinawa. Honestly, I was somewhat inspired by her when I wrote the script for "Vital". It wasn't just because it was Cocco's birthplace. I already had dreams about Okinawa since I saw a collection of photographs at a school library when I was still in middle school. At that time, my interest in Okinawa came from its scenic beauty. Nowadays, whenever I go to Okinawa, I visit the Himeyuri Monument [a monument in Itoman, Okinawa dedicated to a nursing unit for the Imperial Japanese Army during WW2] to pray, or see around the U.S. base —I end up spending time, thinking, seeing the place from different aspects than I had in my youth.

left: The Situation Theatre, right: "The Phantom of Regular Size" (1986)

CM: When you first started your career you created a street theatre company [Kaijyu Theater] similar to Juro Kara's Situation Theatre, or Red Tent Theatre. Later on in your film "Gemini" (1999) you cast dancer and actor Akaji Maro, who was a founding member of the Situation Theatre, in a role. How big an influence does the underground theatre and arts of the 60's influence you, both when you began and today?

ST: Probably I was a high school student at that time. A red tent set up under a railway bridge made me curious whenever I saw it below the train as I went to school. I knew the theatre was organized by Juro Kara, and I found his books at a bookstore. Although I didn't understand the story of his play at all the picture of it reminded me of the Takarazuka Revue. I was fascinated by its charm, so that's how I ended up visiting his theatre for the first time and the performance was incredibly fun to me. Since then, I have been crazy about his stage work. They hold shows twice a year, and they have became huge events for me. It is still hard for me to explain my fascination for his plays. I've really been influenced by them, definitely. My work is a combination of those underground arts and the very orthodox Japanese films done by major studios.

CM: You, I think, have been very protective of your early 8mm films like "The Phantom of Regular Size"(1986) and "The Adventures Of Electric Rod Boy" (1987), but many have found their way illegally on to the internet. How do you feel about this internet age when your films and other director's films are shared and seen this way?

ST: It's hard to say… I feel "How come you can watch my films without my permission?" At the same time, those are my past works and they're somewhat troublesome to watch full-length at once. So clips uploaded online of those films, the trailers, end up introducing my films to people. In that way, it would be pity if all of those clips and trailers were deleted because of copyright. It has to be judged case by case. I would absolutely forbid for people to watch a full-length movie online with high resolution, but it's not a serious problem if short parts of the movie are uploaded as a teaser for the audience. It's actually interesting for me to watch someone who has re-edited a film with their own favorite music.

"Tetsuo the Bullet Man" (2010)

CM: There were many critics who were very harsh about your film before "Kotoko", "Tetsuo the Bullet Man". Do you think that that film was treated fairly?

ST: Well, I know I should have studied what critics wrote a little more. Perhaps I didn’t read them carefully. The movie wasn't a hit. That is true. Maybe, I shouldn’t have said so in interview...! I pay usually attention to what critics say about my films usually, but most of them are written in English. Besides I hardly found any reviews, neither good nor bad, in Japan. The movie was sort of ignored [in Japan]. I didn’t understand much although I read some reviews in English. I may have done something reckless in "Tetsuo the Bullet Man", I guess.

CM: But with screenings of "Kotoko" in Venice and now in Toronto, have you been happy with the way audiences have received this film?

ST: Definitely. A small team of people might be best for my projects. I have mostly worked with large crews over the last ten years, but now I've returned to my style, working through the whole process by myself as I used to do before. I like to be involved in every aspect, step by step. I did co-write scripts with others during the last ten years, and now with Cocco for "Kotoko" too, but as long as I am working on my own project... I am eager to get back to writing scripts by myself and editing without assistance. Taking on these roles is very important to me.

Ca' Foscari Cinema animated short created by Shinya Tsukamoto

CM: You created an animated film for the Ca' Foscari Cinema in Venice. It was just 24-seconds long, but it was very exciting. Do you ever think you would want to direct an animated film?

ST: Sure, I would like to! I have always had a desire to make animation. The one I made for the university partially captured what I want to do [with animation]. While working on the short I was finally convinced of the potential. I'd really like to work in animation.

AS: So you were asked to make this animation from the university?

ST: Yes. When they hold the events, you'll see a short clip before the main film. My animation is used for that.

AS: What kind of technique did you use when you make this animation?

ST: Well, I used digital tools, but I still wanted to give it a hand-drawn impression. So I drew tiny images with my favorite B pencil. Those were really tiny like this [makes a circle with his thumb and index finger to show the small size]. I preferred not to make it something big and public —I mean more like a doodle. That's why I drew very tiny images.

CM: So, all with just a B pencil?!

ST: I bought various pencils for this project, from B, 2B, 3B, 4B, 5B, 6B, 7B, 8B... I was so eager to use all of them. Somehow I found out I like B pencil after all [laughs].

AS: Which software did you use for editing?

ST: Actually people recommended I use many different kinds of editing software for animation. I just chose the combination of Photoshop and Final Cut —the ones I use for my movies.

Ryuhei Matsuda in "Nightmare Detective" (2006)

AS: One of my favorite novelist once mentioned that he kept a pad and paper beside his pillow for writing down dreams which could be used for his novels. I sometimes feel some scenes of your films are like scenes from a dream, or maybe like a nightmare. Are there any of your films that are based on your dreams?

ST: When I was a kid, I was always so frightened of the night because I often had nightmares. I wished somebody would come and save me from these nightmares. That desire resulted in "Nightmare Detective"(2006) and "Nightmare Detective 2" (2008).

CM: You began as a totally independent filmmaker and now, 22-years since the release of "Tetsuo the Iron Man" you have become one of the most respected filmmakers in Japan. I wonder what your thoughts are on today's jishu eiga (independent film) scene are? Are there any young filmmakers who you are excited about?

ST: Independent film... I haven't been able to watch many movies during last the ten years. I spent most of that time looking after my mother. Perhaps it sounds lame that I, as a filmmaker, don’t grasp the current trends. Still, I cannot say much about them.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

INTERVIEW: "Azemichi Road" director Fumie Nishikawa

Interviewed by Nicholas Vroman

Fumie Nishikawa’s "The Azemichi Road" has been making the rounds of North American children’s film festivals to generally good reviews. It opens in Japan this summer. The story is about a young hearing-impaired girl, Yuki (Haruka Ooba), living in a sort of interior isolation compounded by her largely absent working mother (Makiko Watanabe) in the village of Uonuma. She crosses paths with the Jumping Girls, a crew of young teens working on their pop/hip hop dance routine. Invited to join the group by Rena (Misaki Futenma), she faces a classic array of demons to slay - her own physical disabilities, peer pressures, jealousies, insecurity, mother-daughter issues. Of course, she manages to overcome them by the final scenes of the big dance competition.

The positivist message is a standard trope of kids’ films, but what makes "The Azemichi Road" stand out is not only the novel situation of a deaf dancer – she’s quite good in that youthful I-can-and-will-do-anything way – but Nishikawa’s feel for place and character. The townscape of Uonuma - from the emerald green rice fields to the crumbling concrete schools and non-descript public halls and domestic architecture - is deftly illustrated. The world of girls - their peeves and insults, their trust and friendships, their comradery - has a naturalism and connectedness that belie the occasional clichéd conventions that drive the plot. All in all, Yuki and the Jumping Girls rock – in a sort of juvenile and silly way.

I met with Fumie Nishikawa in an old fashioned kissaten in Shibuya. In the crowded room grabbed a corner of a large oak table with a gigantic flower arrangement in the middle. Sheltered behind a several large sprays of forsythia, in broken English and Japanese, we had an informal chat.

NV: You showed this film to the townspeople. What did they think?

FN: They didn't say much. They felt that the place where they live isn’t beautiful. I told them that they should be proud. When I was making this film I was looking for someplace like this. They see this place every day, so they don't find it beautiful. But I did. So after I showed the film to them I think they realized that this place is very beautiful.

NV: Is the town kind of dying?

FN: I don't think the town is dying. Uonuma is close to Tokyo. Only 2 hours. Compared to other parts of the country, it's good for families. But I saw many graves in the middle of rice fields. Older people are there and they like that place. For me it’s super-sabishii (lonely).

NV: In film, who are your influences? Who has inspired you?

FN:I have many. But I think, Tarkovsky… because when I see his films I feel that... how to say it.. that nature... that he shot the atmosphere... that maybe he took the time to do it. I feel that I want to be a film director like him. I want to make my audience think about how beautiful it is where we live.

NV: Azemichi Road. How did this project begin?

FN: I am interested in working with sound. Maybe you saw this film on DVD, so you probably didn't feel the vibration of the sound. But in a theatre you feel the vibration from the system. People who can’t and can hear - I want both of them in the same place to watch the same film. In the theatre the hearing impaired can feel the sound. That's what I intended. I knew the girls before I started making the film. They were trying very hard, learning to dance, so I wanted to make the film about dance. Then I tried to find something far from dance and thought about the hearing impaired. Dance and hearing impairment is good. I wanted to have two very different things. I wanted to bring them together. Yeah, that's the idea.

NV: Did you know about this landscape and area?

FN: No. But I wanted to have a rice field in the film. Because these are young girls… they are developing the same as rice… growing… living. A Japanese rice field in summer is a very particular landscape. And the azemichi (paths between rice fields) reminds me of my summer vacations in my childhood. It rings a bell to me.

NV: In the film, the character Yuki, she sees the Rip Girls. She gets excited. Can you tell me about the competition? Does this sort of thing happen in Japan in smaller towns?

FN: I think at that point it’s a fantasy. In Japan we have dance groups… too many dance groups. Before I made this film, I didn't know hip-hop culture and dance, but I found that in many Japanese country towns there are dance teams, so many. And sometimes they do competitions in the countryside, but there no big stars come. The Rip Girls are famous for Double Dutch. They've won many competitions around the world.

NV: Let's talk about the actors. Yuki. How did you find her?

FN: She's not deaf.

N - But she has big ears.

FN: Yes (laughing). And that's how we can easily see... how do you say… something in her eyes. When I first saw Haruka Ooba, I thought girls at this age generally look happy but Haruka always looked sad. I don't know why, but she looks like she's thinking of something all the time so that's why I liked her for the part.

NV: And so, how was it working with the girls?

FN: I wanted to have a lot of kids with the film. I did it wrong. I couldn't control so many kids. And these girls were... because girls in shishunki (puberty), sometimes they don't like teachers, they don't like parents...
NV: Or directors?

FN: Directors, yeah. So, it was difficult, but Yuki and Misaki, they felt nervous, so I think they worked well. It made work them very very hard.

NV: Azemichi Road has been compared to "Linda Linda Linda"?

FN: Many people have connected it with "Linda Linda Linda" and "Swing Girls". At first I thought my film was like those films, but I made a different kind of film. The theme of the film was not about winning or getting something. The theme is about different cultures coming together. I think American people like this kind of story. It's like a Hollywood-style theme... because in Japan we have more complicated stories. And this one is easy for children to understand.

NV: Were you thinking Hollywood-style when you were writing?
FN: I thought that I had to make a positive story.

NV: What's next?

FN: I'm writing all the time. I want to see the film "Le Quattro Volte". I have a story that has a similar title. It's called Kuadropeto. I don't know if it's a good title in English. What do you call people who walk with both their hands and feet. Human hand-walkers?

N – Quadruped.

FN: Ah yes, that's it. In Japan we call them yotsuashi. Maybe my next film will be about people who walk on hands and feet.

Read more by Nicholas Vroman at his blog

Saturday, February 12, 2011

INTERVIEW: "ANPO" director Linda Hoaglund

ANPO director Linda Hoaglund

Interviewed by Chris MaGee

The 1960's saw the world explode in a political and cultural revolution. In the United States civil rights activists and anti-Vietnam War protesters took to the streets, France saw a general strike that nearly ground the country's economy to a standstill, Ernesto "Che" Guevera preached his doctrine of global revolution, while in China Communist leader Mao Zedong set off his own cultural revolution. Japan was by no means exempt from this tumult, in the country was nearly torn apart over The Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan, known in Japan as Anzenhoshō Jōyaku and subsequently abbreviated to ANPO. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets to voice their opposition to the Treaty signed on January 19th, 1960 that tightened Japan's political ties to the United States and would allow U.S. military bases to remain on Japanese soil. Many saw this as an attack on Japanese sovereignty, left-wing members of the Japanese parliament had to be dragged from chambers, many demonstrators were injured, some even lost their lives; but for a young Linda Hoaglund, the daughter of American missionaries, the conflicts went on virtually unnoticed. "I had led a very sheltered life." Hoaglund says of her years growing up in Japan,"Although I was out in the provinces and although I did go to Japanese school, so in that sense I was very much on the front lines of the Japanese lived experience, but I barely knew about the Vietnam war, I didn't know anything about the protests believe it or not." Hoaglund has subsequently explored this secret history of the country of her birth in her directorial debut "ANPO", a film that sees these massive protests through the eyes of the artists, photographers, film-makers and playwrights who lived through the period. The documentary brings together nearly 175 works, not only from the 1960's but right up to the present day, all created by artists who've made Japan's ambivalent relationship with the United States the crux of their work.

Untitled from the series "Days of Rage and Grief", Hiroshi Hamaya, 1960

Hoaglund, one of today's most sought after film translators, had in many ways become an honorary Japanese by spending the first 17 years of her life in the country, but this came with the same road blocks that many Japanese face when it comes to being educated about 20th century Japanese history. "They have tried to hide whatever part of their history is inconvenient including, I would say, this amazing history of resistance that began in 1960." So as Hoaglund would leave eventually leave Japan, study at Yale University and eventually work on translating and subtitling 140 Japanese films, including Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Bright Future", Hirokazu Koreeda's "After Life" an Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away", this seismic period of Japanese history remained a mystery to her, and consequently enough, only began to be reveal itself to her through Japanese cinema. "I think my first glimpse that something had gone terribly wrong in 1960 was when years ago MOMA had a Shohei Imamura retrospective and it was chronological . I was just flabbergasted, because I had seen "Pigs and Battleships", but the tone of the film he made before that ["My Second Brother"] was so like... We're really poor and I'm an orphan in a coal mine, but I have hope for tomorrow. It wasn't communistic, but it was socialistic idealism, and it was very optimistic about how we may not have money but we have hope and we have each other. And to cut from that to his next film "Pigs and Battleships" which as my editor [Scott A. Burgess] said is the darkest film he's ever seen in his life, with the subject of U.S. military presence in Japanese ordinary life and its corrosive impact. That was my first tip off and I thought what on earth could have happened that depressed this film-maker so much?"

Pigs and Battleships, Shohei Imamura, 1961

Hoaglund would continue to uncover signs of this great societal schism around the ANPO Treaty in the films of Nagisa Oshima, Yasuzo Masumura and even Akira Kurosawa, but even bigger clues as to how ANPO scarred the Japanese psyche came from the world of fine arts. Two artists in particular sparked Hoaglund's artistic exploration of the period. Hoaglund recalls how five years ago a rare book dealer friend sold her a collection of photographs by Hiroshi Hamaya which featured images from the 1960 protests. "Those images were so powerful and they really stayed with me and I wanted to find out where those faces had come from and what had happened to them." Shortly thereafter Hoaglund discovered the work of artist Hiroshi Nakamura, a man she calls "Japan's Picasso", by seeing a documentary about his work on Japan's national broadcaster NHK. "They showed the painting ["Sunagawa No. 5"] of the police struggling with the peasants and my jaw dropped, I was like... Wait a minute! I thought I know a lot about Japanese contemporary art, but who the hell is this guy?! Partly it was interesting to me because that painting in particular, I think if you show that painting without saying anything to anybody not that many people would guess that it was a Japanese painting. So, literally as soon as the show was over I went to the museum and saw this full retrospective of this astonishing artist."

Sunagawa No. 5, Hiroshi Nakamura, 1955

While Hoaglund continued to piece absorb the power and beauty of Hamaya and Nakamura's works as well as the world of protest they depicted she was called on by prominent M.I.T. History Professor and author John Dower to create a unit for his online image-driven scholarship source Visualizing Cultures. "I said I want to do ANPO. Then I showed him the Nakamura paintings and Hamaya photographs and he was just stunned. She did have one stipulation though, "I said I want to make the film first." That of course meant digging deeper into Japan's political and artistic past. "Fortunately we have something called Google," Hoaglund jokes, but in an age when information is at everyones' fingertips she could have never guessed at how huge a subject she had taken on. "I had no idea when I started researching how many painters I would find," she admits. These would come to include painters Chozaburo Inoue, Shideo Ishii, Tatsuo Ikeda, Kikuji Yamashita, photographers Eikoh Hosoe, Miyako Ishiuchi and Mao Ishikawa, multimedia artists Sachiko Kazama, Makoto Aida and Chikako Yamashiro and pop artist Tadanori Yokoo. The one artist that Hoaglund regrets she couldn't include in the film is film-maker Nagisa Oshima, the director of "Night and Fog in Japan", "Cruel Story of Youth" and "The Ceremony" who has lived in seclusion since suffering a series of debilitating strokes. "He's a towering intellect and a man who never sold out."

Kinji Fukasaku (left), Junji Sakamoto (right)

The wealth of history, stories and gallery of artwork that Hoaglund assembled for her film resulted in a huge challenge, "How to wrestle this gigantic treasure trove down to the ground." Although Hoaglund had had experience working in film before as the writer and producer of Risa Morimoto's 2007 documentary "Wings of Defeat" she still needed some help to tackle the immensity of her subject. "I was actually really stuck about a year ago," she admits, "I had a 2-hour, 10-minute cut that I knew was way to long. I hate feeling exhausted when I come out of a movie. I think the best way I want to come out of a movie is "Wait a minute, what was that? I have to see that again!" and figure out how that is put together." Although Hoaglund says she took special strength from the example of late director Kinji Fukasaku during the making of "ANPO" ("I learned so much from just being in his presence and also from subtitling 15 of his films") it was her friendship with "Face" and "Chameleon" director Junji Sakamoto that proved most valuable during the film-making process. "He didn't give me detailed notes, but what he said was your film is way too meticulous. Shock the audience, get rid of everything that's already in history books and grab them in the first 15-minutes. And that that was feedback on how to make a great fictional film." The result is a film that Hoaglund describes as "a cinematic collage", one that has not only captured the attention of general film audiences, but also the world of fine art.

From the series "Hiroshima", Miyako Ishiuchi, 2008

Not only has "ANPO" been featured in an 8-page spread in the January 2011 issue of Art in America, but the inclusion of Hoaglund's film in the 2010 Vancouver International Film Festival has led to a major exhibition for one of the "ANPO" artists. "The Museum of Anthropology at UBC recently expanded and put in a 6,000 square foot exhibition space for fine art and believe it or not starting in October Ishiuchi-san Hiroshima series, 52 of the large photographs, are going to be exhibited there for five months." Miyako Ishiuchi's "Hiroshima" series consists of haunting large scale photographs of clothing that that was worn by survivors of the atomic bombing of the city. "They're going to put huge posters of her work in all the bus shelters in Vancouver, which I think will cause something of a storm," Hoaglund says excitedly, "I mean I think she's one of Japan's finest artists." Beyond the enthusiastic welcome by the arts community the reactions that Hoaglund is most touched by are those from young Japanese who, like her many years ago, have no clear knowledge of the vents that shook their country a half-century ago. "I think one Japanese young person put it best, she said you know, after watching this movie it's sort of like if you have an illness that no doctor had been able to diagnose and suddenly a doctor comes along and says this is your illness and this is why you're sick. That was the effect of watching 'ANPO' on her. So 'ANPO' is my way of saying don't stay sick! And that's why I ended the film with Ishiuchi saying 'I refuse to stay wounded.' I believe saying 'I refuse to stay wounded,' is the beginning of so many things - it's the beginning of much great art, it's the beginning of therapy and it's the beginning of personal transformation."

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

INTERVIEW: Film-maker Edmund Yeo discusses his inspiration behind "Exhalation"

Interviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr

A filmmaker that we have been following for a while now is Edmund Yeo the Malaysian-born, Tokyo based film-making wunderkind (above right) has only been on the scene since 2007, but he's already racked up an impressive collection of awards from international film festivals including the Grand Prix at the 6th CON-CAN Movie Festival for his short film "Fleeting Images", the Silver Grand Prix and Best New Creator awards at Japan's Eibunren Awards for his short "Kingyo" and the Sonje Award for Best Asian Short Film at the Pusan International Film Festival for his film "Inhalation".

It was shortly after Yeo had completed "Kingyo", a 25-minute adaptation of a story by Yasunari Kawabata, that I was lucky enough to interview him and ever since we at the Pow-Wow and Yeo has kept us updated about his latest projects. Recently Yeo completed his short film "Exhalation" which Marc Saint-Cyr reviewed here. From that review Marc was asked by Yeo himself to conduct a short interview for the official press kit for "Exhalation" which stars Japanese actresses Kiki Sugino and Tomoe Shinohara. We all thought that our readers would be interested to hear more from this film-maker, who we think is on the verge of breaking into the film-making major leagues in a very big way.

MSC: "Exhalation" follows another, similarly-titled film of yours, "Inhalation". How are the two films linked?

EY: While both were semi-autobiographical, there were never any intentions to link the two short films as pair. Although released earlier, 'Inhalation' was shot 2 months after 'Exhalation' and was meant as a spin-off of a feature-length film that I co-wrote and produced called 'The Tiger Factory' (directed by Woo Ming Jin). 'Exhalation', on the other hand, is meant as a standalone Japanese short film.

However, I noticed the structural and thematic similarities, and felt that the pair were films that belonged to a particular phase of my creative life, thus giving them these titles was inevitable.

MSC: "Exhalation" is inspired by your memories of a classmate’s death when you were in high school. How often do you draw upon elements from your own life when you are writing your films?

EY: Most of the time. In order to preserve some sort of emotional authenticity and uniqueness, I find inspiration from my own life, memories or even dreams, to write my films. The dialogues I've written might sometimes even be something that someone had said to me, or conversations I myself have had with another. Even if it were literary adaptations, I can only adapt them if there is something that I can personally connect with, and then later embellish them with fleeting moments and feelings I myself had experienced.

MSC: How did you decide which sequences in the film would be in black-and-white or color?

EY: The black-and-white, was, in fact, a last-minute decision made during post-production. I remembered reading an interview with Andrei Tarkovsky where he pointed out that a black-and-white film immediately creates the impression that your attention is concentrated on what is most important. On the screen, color imposes itself on you.

In order to underline the melancholic undertone of the film, I decided to drain most scenes of their colors. I inserted colours in certain scenes when I needed to accentuate the emotional states of the protagonists. A feeling of brief warmth, or lingering sadness, or an abrupt break from monotony. In the end it was an experiment of sorts for storytelling.

MSC: "Exhalation" features emotionally intense performances from its two main actresses, KikiSugino and Tomoe Shinohara. Do you have any specific strategies for directing actors?

EY: Not really. For me filmmaking is often a collaborative effort. During script meetings with my actors, I generally explain only the overall tone I have in mind for the film, then I'll just get out of the way and let them interpret the characters by themselves. There are usually happy accidents where they do something with the characters that I didn't even imagine earlier. I like the spontaneity.

Edmund Yeo's "Exhalation" will be receiving its European premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam , running January 26th to February 6th.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

INTERVIEW: CALF founder Nobuaki Doi talks Japanese indie animation

Interviewed by Chris MaGee

In the present economic climate when niche DVD distribution companies like New Yorker Films, Arts Magic and Wellspring have gone out of business and taken their catalogues with them it's a very bold and brave move to start a new distribution company. Thankfully there are bold and brave film lovers out there like Stephanie Trepanier at Evokative Films, Adam Torel at Third Window Films and Nadav Street at Pink Eiga who are bucking the current tighten-the-belt climate. All have established DVD companies that are bringing great foreign and art house (specifically Japanese films) to audiences in the West. One newcomer to this already new crop of film entrepreneurs is Nobuaki Doi. 29-year-old Doi has joined forces with such world-renowned Japanese animators as Kei Oyama, Atsushi Wada and Mirai Mizue to create CALF, a new DVD label that is redefining what animation in Japan is and can be. CALF has already released DVDs of the work of 29-year-old animator Mirae Mizue and light-animation collective Tochka (above) and plans for DVDs of the films of Kei Oyama and Atsushi Wada are in the works.

Recently I was very lucky to discuss CALF with Doi, who is getting ready to come to Canada with Oyama, Wada and Mizue for the 2010 Ottawa International Animation Festival (running between October 20th and 24th), but he was quick to point out the difficulty with the term "Japanese art animation". "I never use the word 'art animation'," Doi explained,"I always use 'independent animation'. In Japan you know the commercial animation scene is really flourishing and everyone knows about it. In fact they only know [commercial animation]. They never take a notice of animation except 'anime'." While Doi and his colleagues at CALF want to differentiate the work they make and release from commercial anime they don't like the hierarchy of dubbing the films of its animators as "art animation".

Doi was so forthcoming and gave so much insight into the indie animation scene in Japan during our discussion that I thought I would post verbatim his answers. It's such a treat to talk with someone who is so passionate about what they do that to edit down our discussion just seemed criminal. So sit back and enjoy (and learn from) the Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow's chat with CALF founder Nobuaki Doi.

"Handsoap" Kei Oyama, 2008

CM: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be involved in the Japanese animation scene? You have a background as a critic, is that correct? When you were first exploring animation did you have any favorite animators who particularly inspired you?

ND: When I was a student in Tokyo University, I studied Russian language because of my love of Dostoevsky (Japanese people really like him). At one Russian class, a teacher showed us some Russian animation. Among the films was "Tale of Tales" by Yuri Norstein. This literally changed my life. I decided to go to graduate school and research Norstein. (I’m still in a doctorial course and preparing a doctorial dissertation on him. To think about his films, you need to know much more about short animation, which seems to have a different logic than features or productions for TV. It was then that I started to watch independent works from all around the world, but it was a very hard to find the information on animation other than anime. One of the most important sources was Koji Yamamura's blog called “Unknown Animations”. Koji was the only one who had often visited international animation festivals all around the world at that time around 2002. He introduced Japanese to many great foreign animation films. I contacted him and handed to him my academic paper on Norstein because I know his films are his favorite. In 2006, Koji sent me an e-mail saying “Let’s do something with me to improve the world of independent animation in Japan”. You know “Animations Creators and Critics”? [Check it out here] This is a group of animators and critics [whose goal is] to make a new wave in the Japanese indie scene. We wrote reviews, did interviews of great animators (Norshtein, Priit Parn, Don Hertzfeldt…), held screening events… I think that through this group young animators started to be conscious of international animation scene. I write a blog for this group and this is why young independent animators in Japan took notice of me. I am (almost) the only one who writes about indie things. Among the members Koji chose [animators] Kei Oyama and Atsushi Wada. We became friends and we have respect for each other’s works. Now "Animations Creators and Critics" is broken up for various reasons and the only active members are Koji and me. I’m still doing web things. (blog, interview, reviews…) Sorry for my very long answer! I want to tell you the real back ground of CALF. CALF is not a product of an accident or a whim. It has a long history to be realized.

CM: "CALF" is not a name people would relate to animation. Can you explain why you chose the name?

ND: The founders of CALF are Kei Oyama, Atsushi Wada, Mirai Mizue, and I. We had difficulty deciding the name of the label. At that time Kei said “What part of a woman’s body do you like the most?” Kei’s favorite was a calf, a part of a leg. I saw an Oxford Dictionary and found it had a meaning of “a young animal of some other type such as a young elephant or whale”, and, of course, a baby cow. Other dictionaries said “calf” is a symbol of foolishness and naïve. We were very sure that this name is perfect for us because we are all still young (I believe) and we are like foolish babies trying to prove our value by founding a label. I like the fact that calf can suggest different kinds of animals. Our logo designed by Atsushi is really symbolic. You can’t say what kind of animal it is. It means we are no one now, but we will be someone in the future. It can be everything. CALF also symbolizes the possibility of the (promising?) future of indie animation in Japan.

"Jam" Mirai Mizue, 2009

CM: Has it been difficult to start an independent DVD label to showcase Japanese animation? What special challenges have you faced?

ND: We have faced mainly two difficulties: lacks of money and popularity. Although the cost to make a DVD is now getting cheaper, it still takes a lot of money if you want to start a label. Each of the founders invested their own money for CALF, but we don’t think this money will end up coming back. It’s an investment for the future. Another difficulty is that almost all Japanese are unfamiliar with our animators even though their films are shown in festivals all around the world. Being shown in a festival doesn’t mean popularity, especially for short filmmakers. One of the good things when we gather as a collective is we can have as a long program as a feature film. It will help us when doing a screening event or promoting our films at festivals or movie theaters. Now things are changing due to the internet. We can promote ourselves with no money by using SNS or Twitter. Our launch event in Tokyo gathered more than 250 people even though an admission fee was charged. It was an unprecedented case for indie animation. In events of short films the audience had been the filmmakers themselves and their friends so far. Our event was not like that. We wanted and still want “general” people to come. I feel everybody wants to see something new and unknown. CALF can attract such people. So far, it's succeeded.

CM: You've already released two DVDs through CALF, one of the work of Mirai Mizue and one of Tochka. How did you become affilitaed with these artists? Do you have other animators that you wish you could work with and release DVDs of?

ND: As I said before, CALF is consisted of me and young animators. Kei, Atsushi, and I knew each other very well because of "Animations". In the case of Mirai, I became friends with him when we went together to Annecy last year. His efforts to keep making his own films and submitting them to the festivals is amazing. I think he is the first to be conscious of an international animation scene among young independent animators. In the case of Tochka, their PiKA PiKA films have received awards many times including the Grand Prize in Clermont-Ferrand. Kei and Atsushi know them very well and they also love Kei and Atsushi's films. So we decided to release their DVD. Our affiliation is based on friendship really.

We will release more DVDs in the future. Our criteria for the decision is very simple: Does he/she keep making films? Are her/his films shown and have they received awards at festivals all around the world? We don’t think we can earn much money if we sell DVDs only for domestic people. I think every country has a small amount of short animation lovers so if we take a look at a globe the number of customers is getting bigger. If each of the countries has 10 fans, we can discover about 2000 people in the world!! This is what we want to do.

If we find someone good, we are very glad to release their DVDs. I know there are so many talented student animators in Japan. The problem is most of them stop making films after graduation because short animation doesn’t make money. One reason why we decided to make a label is to be a guideline for student animators after graduation. It can serve as motivation for them to keep making films. We will offer their films the opportunity to be shown at an event and, of course, to be released as a DVD. Shin Hashimoto, Saori Shiroki, Ayaka Nakata, Masaki Okuda, Ryo Okawara… these are some of the names you should take notice of. Of course there's Aico Kitamura, our webmaster. She is a school mate of Atsushi from graduate school where Koji teaches [Tokyo University of the Arts, Department of ASnimation]. If they continue to make films, we want to release their DVDs.

Plus, we are not a label especially for animation. We want to release live-action films, maybe even short pieces. Things major companies won't release. At our event in Tokyo we invited guests like [short filmmaker] Isamu Hirabayashi and Tetsuya Mariko [director of "Yellow Kid"]. Now we are negotiating with some filmmakers whose films have been well received on the festival circuit.

"In a pig's eye" Atsushi Wada, 2010

CM: CALF has already attended and screened work at the Hiroshima International Animation Festival, The Zagreb World Festival of Animated Films and at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival. The CALF artists are known worldwide, but did you notice any differences between the audiences in Hiroshima, Zagreb and Annecy? Did you notice that people interpreted the work differently from country to country at all?

ND: I’m sorry I've never been to Zagreb, but I know Annecy and Hiroshima very well. The audiences in Annecy are sometimes very good but they can be really disturbing at the same time. They seem to come to the screening hall to make noise. Pretending to be an animal or flying a paper plane. At midnight screenings most of the audience was drunk. If you make a funny film, Annecy is the best place. They will laugh when you want them to laugh. If you make a film which needs contemplation… I’m sorry for that. Sometimes they laugh at a point when you don’t want them to laugh. It can destroy a film sometimes. On the contrary people in Hiroshima are very silent. They see the films silently and carefully, even if a film is really boring. They are very modest in a good and bad way. You can see whether your film is good or bad from the audience’s reaction. Hiroshima people seem to like something beautiful and dream-like. Short animation lovers in Japan like such people.

CM: You have programmed a selection of Japanese animation for the Ottawa International Animation Festival this month. Will this be your first time in Canada? Is there anything you are looking forward to about your trip to Canada?

ND: No, I visited Ottawa last year to see the retrospective of Don Hertzfeldt. For me, Hertzfeldt is one of the major motivating factors which made me found a label. He once did "The Animation Show". He not only makes great films, but he also makes an effort to improve the circumstances around the world for independent animation. In spite of the fact he makes short animation, he is very popular. It’s unbelievable for us.

I’m really excited that I can visit the National Film Board of Canada studio this year. For independent animators, NFB is a kind of a mecca. I like the city of Ottawa. Ottawa was silent and beautiful. There are many squirrels there. It's a little bit cold at the end of October, but the red and yellow maple leafs are beautiful with the contrast of the blue sky.

CM: This might be a difficult question, but can you explain the current Japanese art animation scene in just three words?

ND: Just exciting, period!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

INTERVIEW: Artist and animator Akino Kondoh

by Chris MaGee

The work of many of the current generation of Japanese manga artists and animators is filled with instantly recognizable imagery. From the high-art/ bad taste aesthetic of Shintaro Kago, through the twisted kawaii of Junko Mizuno, to the pastel wonderlands of Oscar-winner Kunio Kato Japanese visual culture continues to be one of the richest in the world; but one woman’s singular artistic vision, both on the printed page and onscreen, has made her one of the most recognizable artists and animators working today. Though not all fans of Japanese film, animation, and art have heard Akino Kondoh’s name it’s almost guaranteed you have seen her work.

Whimsical yet darkly haunting, boldly blocked out in black and white but with brilliant hints of colour, Kondoh’s work has gained international acclaim and garnered many awards including the Grand Prix for animation at the 2002 DIGISTA AWARDS and the 2d Ax Manga Newcomer’s Award in 2000. With gallery exhibitions from New York to Stockholm and her two short animated films, 2002’s "The Evening Traveling" and 2006’s "Ladybirds' Requiem", being screened at festivals and galleries worldwide (including here in Toronto at the 2009 Shinsedai Cinema Festival and at the upcoming Plastic Paper Festival of Animation happening in Winnipeg) Kondoh is fast becoming one of Japan’s most important contemporary artists; but the 29-year-old Chiba Prefecture native is modest about her artistic journey, " I loved to draw since childhood so at first I wanted to be a childrens’ picture book writer," Kondoh explained to the J-Film Pow-Wow from her home studio in Queens, New York where she is currently based, "When I was 18 and a high school student I drew manga for the first time and then I wanted to be a manga artist."

It was at this same time that Kondoh first encountered the main character of most of her manga, paintings and films, Eiko. "She is the image of the ideal girl for me," Kondoh says of bob-haired young woman with the knowing smile who makes up the core of Kondoh’s creative output, "Maybe an ideal version of myself." Throughout Kondoh’s manga, such as 2003’s "Ladybirds' Requiem" and "TUMEKIRI MONOGATARI", Eiko's "Alice in Wonderland"-like adventures start out with simply observed events: clipping fingernails, buying an umbrella, sewing buttons, or accidentally killing an insect, "The stories start from daily life. Sometimes I notice an interesting point in daily life and start to make the story," reveals Kondoh; and even though so many of her paintings seem to exist in a darkened twilight world Kondoh is reticent to draw the obvious comparison between Eiko’s rich fantasy world to that of dreams. "No, I never use them," she states, "They influence me a lot and inspire me, but the story of dream is just dream. Dream gives me a hint sometimes, but most hints come from memories and daily life. I construct a story from all of them."

Kondoh also takes inspiration from nature, ("Insects influenced me a lot. I loved them and looked for them when I was a child. i love them still now. "), childhood memories, and her love of antiques, especially antique opaque glass, but it was the music of Japanese folk/ pop band TAMA that had a special impact on Kondoh. It was while studying at the Tama University Department of Graphic Design under Professor Masahiro Katayama that Kondoh was inspired to animate "The Evening Traveling", around TAMA singer Toshiaki Chiku’s solo single "Densha kamo shirenai". "I was so happy, "Kondoh explains, "but I was a student and the work was an assignment, so first I used the song with no permission." Kondoh ended up receiving top marks for the film, which features Eiko in a surreal song and dance number, and permission was sought directly from Chiku for the use of his song; but surprisingly his initial reaction wasn’t entirely positive, " The first time he didn't like it," Kondoh admits, but she feels it might have had something to do with Chiku’s similar interests (Chiku himself had loved insects as a child) and his concept of his song, "Sometimes we don't like someone who is like ourselves." Eventually Chiku warmed to "The Evening Traveling" and his doubts about the project didn’t taint Kondoh’s admiration for his work, "I was a great fan of him. I was happy just to see and talk with him."

The experience of animating "The Evening Traveling", which Kondoh says involved six months of hand drawing each image, scanning them as computer image files, and then using Adobe After Effects to edit them together, kept her cloistered away by herself for hours on end, "That style is good for me, but my mother helped me to scan the drawings." Despite the intensity of the process it hasn’t deterred Kondoh from continuing to make animated shorts. In 2003 she adapted her manga "Ladybirds' Requiem" into a 5-minute short (a project she attempted in 2003, but that version was not completed), but when the topic of conversation turns to the increasing number of underground manga, such as Kazuichi Hanawa's "Doing Time", Yoshiharu Tsuge's "Neji-shiki", and George Asakura's "Heibon Ponchi", being adapted into live-action films and whether her manga could survive the same treatment she has mixed feelings, "I think I would be happy, but I don't know whether I should admit or not. It depends on who asks me and his plan. My stories are very simple and short. They would be hard to change for a movie."One thing is certain, though. Akino Kondoh is not interested in transitioning from animated short films to live-action short films, "Not at all. I don’t think I will do that in the future. I like to draw."

Kondoh has had, and will continue to have, plenty of opportunities to draw. Not only has she had three drawings included in this year’s Brooklyn Armory Show, participated in the Tokyo Anima! exhibition of contemporary Japanese animation last month in Roppongi with such artists as Kunio Kato, Atsushi Wada, and Kei Oyama, but she is also currently prepping for a solo exhibition of her work at the Mizuma Art Gallery in Meguro-ku, Tokyo later next year, plus Kondoh is in the process of making her third animated film (drawing above right), "The title is KiyaKiya. I am working on it now. I plan to finish it next year."

You can read more on Akino Kondoh at her official site as well as at the Mizuma Art Gallery website. Also, look for Akino Kondoh's 2006 version of "Ladybirds' Requiem" to be screened at this year's Shinsedai Cinema Festival in Toronto. Until then check out excerpts from the film below.

Friday, March 12, 2010

INTERVIEW: Film historian Peter Cowie

Interviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the bith of Akira Kurosawa, and the publication of "Akira Kurosawa: Master of Cinema" (released in bookstores this week) The Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow's Marc Saint-Cyr spoke with its author, world renowned film historian Peter Cowie, on his motivations for writing this landmark book, his personal favorites from Kurosawa's filmography, and how he sees Kurosawa's legacy influencing today's filmmakers.

We'd like to thank Marty Gross for his help in facilitating this interview.

Marc Saint-Cyr: In your introduction to the book, you clearly state that you’re not intending to compete with Donald Richie’s book "The Films of Akira Kurosawa", opting instead for a more tribute-oriented work. What was your main objective in putting this book together?

Peter Cowie: I had felt an urge to write at some length about Kurosawa, have devoted numerous short reviews to his work in various books over the years. I also felt that the visual splendor of his work deserved better treatment than it had in the Kurosawa bibliography to date, in which most books tend to focus on words rather than images.

MSC: Along with familiar images from Kurosawa’s films, this book also contains rarer stills and photos of his painted storyboards and script pages marked up with notes and sketches. How did you go about researching and gaining access to such material? How did you decide what to include in the book and what to leave out?

PC: It was difficult, to say the least. I had to negotiate with Toho, the company controlling a vast majority of Kurosawa’s films, and with the agency that markets his paintings and storyboards. Then I had to track down individual photographers, and also – with the help of my Toronto friend Marty Gross, persuade Teruyo Nogami (Kurosawa’s long-time assistant) to let me have access to her shooting scripts. I made two trips to Japan, and the Japanese, while wary of you the first time, are warm, and open to discussion once they feel your mission is genuine.

MSC: In the book, you make quite a few comparisons between Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman. Do you see them as parallel figures in world cinema?

PC: Both men emerged during the 1950’s (even if Kurosawa was eight years Bergman’s senior). It was a period when film buffs were eager for new tendencies in world cinema, with the French New Wave, the Italian masters like Fellini, Antonioni, Rossellini, and De Sica, Satyajit Ray in India, Wajda in Poland etc. Kurosawa shares with Bergman a fascination for the history of his own country and both, of course, controlled their own screenplays.

MSC: Were there any foggy areas of Kurosawa’s career (i.e. "The Runaway Train", his long-lost director’s cut of "The Idiot", "Tora! Tora! Tora!") that you were tempted to shed more light on, or would be interested in exploring more extensively in the future?

PC: Both those episodes represent failure, and I’m always more interested as a writer in success rather than failure.

MSC: You interestingly, and accurately, describe Toshirô Mifune as representing “the essential frailty of man” in Kurosawa’s films despite his famous macho persona. How big a part do you believe he played in Kurosawa’s career and success?

PC: Considerable – even if he made fewer films with Kurosawa than Takashi Shimura. But (again the Bergman comparison), like Max von Sydow and Gunnar Bjornstrand, Mifune and Shimura represented the poles of Kurosawa’s own personality, the yin and the yang. As you say, though, Mifune had a vulnerable side to his character which emerged strikingly in "Drunken Angel", "The Idiot", and "High and Low".

MSC: Which films of Kurosawa’s did you first see, or first make you interested in his work?

PC: "Seven Samurai", when I first went up to Cambridge University in the late 1950’s.

MSC: What are your favorite films of his?

PC: "Stray Dog", "Seven Samurai", "Throne of Blood", and "Kagemusha".

MSC: Kurosawa’s career has undergone many fascinating phases of evolution – his early WWII-era and postwar films, his 1950s and ‘60s run of samurai and noir films, his later exercises in formal experimentation and mastery. Which period do you believe was the most fruitful of his career?

PC: The 1950s, no question. In that single decade he directed "Rashomon", "Seven Samurai", "Ikiru", "Throne of Blood", and "The Hidden Fortress", all of which were successful in the West.

MSC: Which Kurosawa films do you believe deserve more recognition?
PC: "Red Beard", "Sanshiro Sugata" (it’s finally available via Criterion), and "The Lower Depths".

MSC: Do you think Kurosawa’s films still have a strong following among younger audiences today?

PC: Absolutely. I write these lines just after returning from the European Film College in Denmark, where I lectured on Kurosawa to 100 neophyte filmmakers from 20 countries. They all reacted with admiration to Kurosawa’s work.

MSC: Which filmmakers would you say have followed in Kurosawa’s footsteps in terms of making the most of cinema as a storytelling medium?

PC: Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, John Woo, Ang Lee, and Zhang Yimou. Just as John Ford and John Huston influenced Kurosawa in their day.

Have you seen "Avatar:? Compared to Kurosawa’s films, and considering both its impressive visual quality and its considerable faults in story and writing, would you say it’s a step forwards or backwards for using cinema as a storytelling medium?

PC: I think "Avatar" will occupy a place in film history equivalent to "The Jazz Singer" (first sound movie), "The Robe" (first film in CinemaScope), and "Star Wars" (first film really to rely almost wholly on special effects). I regard it as a prodigious achievement from a technical point of view, and Cameron’s unfailing imagination ensures that it’s very entertaining too. I don’t think you can compare it to Kurosawa, Bergman, Fellini, or any other great auteur’s work.

MSC: Finally, looking towards the Shinsedai Cinema Festival, which will be put together by the Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow’s Chris MaGee and Midnight Eye’s Jasper Sharp for its second year in Toronto this summer, what do you think young Japanese filmmakers should take away from Kurosawa’s legacy as they go about making their own films?

PC: Good question. Again like Bergman, Kurosawa has cast too long a shadow over his national film industry for far too long. I think young directors can still look to Kurosawa for inspiration, however, when it comes to developing characters, and in having compassion for those characters.

Friday, October 30, 2009

INTERVIEW: Yojiro Takita visits Toronto with his Oscar-winning film "Departures"

by Chris MaGee

It seems strange to have a film about an out of work cellist taking a job as an encoffiner, someone whose specific role is to lay the deceased in their coffin, standing along side genre hits like "District 9" and "Zombieland", but "Departures" definitely held its own with these other 2009 sleeper hits. Of course it helped that the heartwarming drama, which had already scooped up armfuls of awards at home in Japan, took home the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film at the 81st annual Academy Awards. The win was a surprise to many who had thought that Israel's entry "Waltz with Bashir" would waltz away with the coveted statuette, but "Departure's" worldwide popularity and historic Oscar win seemed natural to its director Yojiro Takita, "I've seen that all over the world people [who've watched "Departures"] react at the same time, and that's a very interesting point," the veteran filmmaker stated during a recent visit to Toronto to present his blockbuster international hit, "This film is dealing with very universal issues and very basic feelings of human beings, and it drew these feelings very accurately and that's why it's been such a big success around the world."

With its gentle humour and heartfelt, unpretentious performances of its lead stars Masahiro Motoki, Ryoko Hirosue, and Tsutomu Yamazaki "Departures" definitely brought a very pragmatic, and dare it be said, Japanese approach to death, but speaking to Takita face to face it's easy to see where some of the film's pragmatism came from. Discussion about his involvement in the final polish of Kundo Koyama's screenplay adaptation of real life encoffiner Aoki Shinmon's autobiography and the behind-the-scenes creation of his extensive filmography is summed up in a refreshingly matter of fact way, "It depends on the budget you have available, and also the themes you want to explore in the film, and that has to match with the creator of the film," he explains indicating himself, "Once that is sort of matching, that's all it takes to get the film going, but the most important thing is the theme - how it appears to me. And through this theme, how I can express myself. "

Seated in the offices of the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre on the second stop of a mini-tour of Ontario that began with a screening of "Departures" at Kitchener-Waterloo's Grand River Film Festival the 53-year-old Takita exudes quiet confidence and authority. Now in his third decade as a filmmaker Takita has applied his talent to everything from magical fantasies like 2005's "Ashura" and the "Onmyoji" films to the multiple Japanese Academy Award-winning historical drama "When the Last Sword is Drawn". "In Japan, I'm dealing with many different types of films, but for me it's a very natural thing," he says. For the first five year's of his career though Takita honed his skills, as many other high profile directors like Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Masayuki Suo, in only one genre - pinku eiga.

Takita first gained notoriety by producing the "Chikan densha" or "Groper Train" series of softcore sex films, 15 in all between 1981 and 1986, but as he explains it pink films are far removed from the lowest common denominator hardcore adult video market on this side of the Pacific. "Japanese Pink films, or Roman Porno films, are totally different from the North American and European sex films," he explains, "The Japanese style is to show eroticism. It's not the actual 100% sexual film, it's totally different. In Japanese film production, there are directors or creators who are dealing with those kinds of films. pink eiga, gang eiga, action eiga ... they approach those films with the same attitude. Just to create something interesting."

From cutting his teeth in pink films to accepting an Oscar onstage at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood is quite the journey though, so what was it about the "theme" of "Departures" that drew Takita to the project? "From the first impression of 'Departures', I'm over 50 now and gradually...," Takita pauses for a few seconds, long enough for me to notice the Buddhist payer beads that he's wearing on both his wrists, "Death up to now was a far away thing for me. I didn't want to see the death. But gradually as I'm getting over 50, death becomes closer and closer. The film is obviously about death, which is a necessary thing in life, but the important thing is that there is no pessimistic view - that life is together with death. That's the most important point ... that it's not pessimistic."

Despite its cross-cultural appeal Takita shares an interesting observation about the way in which U.S. audiences have received "Departures". I felt that from my visits to New York and L.A. that the reactions in the USA were quicker or more instant. The audiences in the USA, I guess, are more closely tied to the film industry so they have that kind of reaction, but there is a danger in that where they can just go the opposite way and really, really like it and the word gets spread that it's a really great movie, or they can quickly say 'No, this is a bad film.' It's YES/ NO, and this is very different from Japanese audiences." Thankfully it's obvious that the number of YESs have far outnumbered the NOs when it comes to "Departures" and it's a fair bet that that will remain the case for a long time to come.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A chat with video artist and composer Takagi Masakatsu

by Chris MaGee

One of the most exciting aspects of the Shinsedai Cinema Festival, not just for guests but for us organizers as well, is the opportunity to highlight filmmakers and artists whose work may not immediately pop into the public's mind when "Japanese cinema" is mentioned. A perfect example is 30-year-old video artist and composer Takagi Masakatsu. Right from the very beginning of programming the fest with Midnight Eye's Jasper Sharp I knew I wanted to include the work of this gentle, enigmatic man. During this past decade Masakatsu has redefined what "video art" is capable of, producing lush, colourful and just plain joyful short videos as opposed to the dry, theoretical work that most people associate with contemporary video art. As a preface to the screening of four of Masakatsu's short films and the North American Premiere of his brand new concert documentary Aruongaku (screening at 6:00PM on Saturday, August 22nd as part of the fest) I chatted with Masakatsu about his background, living in Kyoto, meeting David Sylvian, and how travel deeply influences his work. Check out the full interview by heading to the Shinsedai Cinema Festival website here.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Chatting with filmmaker Yoshihiro Ito in advance of his visit to the Shinsedai Cinema Festival

by Chris MaGee

We're getting close, oh so close, to the Shinsedai Cinema Festival that runs from August 21st to August 23rd at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre here in Toronto. One filmmaker that both Jasper Sharp and myself are very excited to be presenting in Canada for the first time is Yoshihiro Ito. Hard to categorize Ito's films mix elements of comedy, romance, suspense and even small bursts of horror into a surreal hybrid that would make David Lynch and Seijun Suzuki proud.

I recently had a chance to chat with Ito before he makes his way to Toronto for the Shinsedai Fest and we discussed how Ito went from studying geophysics at University to becoming a filmmaker, how directors such as the aforementioned David Lynch, Shinji Somai and Bernardo Bertolluci influence his work, and how an elephant will factor in to his next film.

Check out the interview at the Shinsedai Cinema Festival website. Thanks to Masayo Heron for helping with the translation.

"Vortex & Others: 5 Short Films by Yoshihiro Ito" will be screening at the Shinsedai Cinema Festival Sunday, August 23rd at 12:00 PM with Ito in attendance for a post-screening Q&A session.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Edmund Yeo: Hot young Malaysian filmmaker tackles classic Japanese literature

by Chris MaGee

Asian cinema seems to be exploding with young talented filmmakers in recent years, and not just filmmakers from Japan. One of the newest on the scene is Edmund Yeo. The 25-year-old Malaysian-born and now Tokyo-based independent director and producer has been garnering more and more positive buzz by the day with his short films "Love Suicides" and "Kingyo" based on the stories of Nobel Prize-winning Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972). It takes a lot of courage to tackle one of the most revered figures of Japanese literature, but Yeo takes the challenge on gladly, not only as a way to hone his already impressive filmmaking skills, but also to find his place as a Malaysian filmmaker working and living in Japan.

Yeo was born in Singapore in 1984, but when he was only two his parents, who both worked in the music industry, moved the family back to their native country of Malaysia. While Yeo's mother and father may have had active careers in the world of music entertainment they also harboured a love for film, a love that they shared with their young son. "Going to cinemas was, and still is, something I do with my dad all the time," Yeo explains the morning after "Kingyo" screened for enthusiastic test audiences in Shinjuku. While the kinds of films that Yeo saw growing up don't vary much from what most of his generation saw (Disney cartoons, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Back To The Future), it was how his parents approached the films that set Yeo on the path he's on today. "There was a time when I went to watch "Tremors" with my parents in the cinema when I was really young," Yeo remembers, "I was freaking out. Mom thought the best way to calm me down was to totally deconstruct the illusion of films, like pointing out how some stuff was just props, how they were just acting, how the guy didn't really die, how the monster was just a construct. Perhaps that deconstruction led to the whole discussion about how films were made." Yeo's mother explained that the person in charge of the props, actors and the monster worms in "Tremors" was called a "director". The lightbulb went on for Yeo.

While his parents never discouraged Yeo's cinematic dreams his route to the director's chair hasn't always been a straight one. Before completing a one-year post-graduate course in film production at Perth's Murdoch University Yeo majored in Marketing with a minor in English Literature, but thankfully a job opportunity came up that steered him away from a career in P.R. "After returning from Perth in late 2006 I stumbled upon my first production job as an assistant director for a TV movie. During pre-production, the director, Kannan, introduced me to his friend, and that friend happened to be Woo Ming Jin." 32-year-old Woo is a filmmaking phenome in Malaysia, writing, producing, directing and editing seven films in just five years. After the TV movie Yeo and Woo became friends and this friendship led to an offer that Yeo couldn't refuse, "He asked me whether I was interested in helping him out at the company he'd started, Greenlight Pictures. He had just completed 'The Elephant and the Sea' [which would go on to win the Special Jury Prize at the 2007 Torino International Festival of Young Cinema], and needed someone to hop aboard as associate producer to help with its post-production and local theatrical release." Yeo accepted and his production experience with Woo proved invaluable. "After making student films exclusively in Australia, I needed to reconnect with my country again, and feel around, just to know how things work in Malaysia, the different approach I had to take to make my own films, readjusting to my own culture again, etc."

Yeo didn't have much time to readjust to his homeland though. "Before I got that assistant director's job, I applied for a scholarship offered by the Japanese Embassy that would send me to Japan to further my studies. The entire process went on for an entire year until I got selected." Yeo had to make yet another transition, but Japan wasn't a country that Yeo was wholly unfamiliar with. While studying in Perth one of Yeo's close friends turned him onto the biggest names in Japanese literature, Mishima, Tanizaki, Akutagawa, but one writer really impressed him, "Somehow Yasunari Kawabata's "Palm-of-the-Hand Stories" stood out to me because of their deceiving simplicity, some stories lasting only a page or two, yet I just felt they were screaming for some adaptation." Yeo did just that, bringing his vision of Kawabata's "Love Suicides" and "Canaries" (adapted as "Kingyo" or "Goldfish") to the screen with two short films. "Of course there were some initial concerns that," Yeo laughs, "what I was doing would be sacrilegious to a Nobel laureate."

"Love Suicides" revolves around an absent father/ husband sending letters to his estranged wife demanding that she and their daughter keep quiet because the sounds they make somehow reach him and make his heart ache. "Canaries" also takes the form of a letter, this time from a man to his former mistress about a pair of canaries she gave to him as a gift. The man's wife ended up being the one who cared for them never knowing they were a gift from her husband's lover, and after the man's wife passes away he's left questioning his role in the whole affair. Far from sacrilegious Yeo's films aren't slavish adaptations either. "I wanted to make sure what I did was more capturing an essence, an interpretation instead of a faithful, line by line adaptation." "Love Suicides" was transplanted to Malaysia while "Kingyo" is set in present day Akihabara, the man now a professor and his lover a hostess in a maid café. "Ultimately the short stories serve as a starting point, the rest of the dots are up to myself to connect."

It wasn't just Yeo who ended up connecting the dots on "Kingyo" though. In keeping with the old adage that filmmaking is a collaborative effort Yeo involved his cast and crew in updating Kawabata's story. "I didn't want the film to end up being too 'un-Japanese' solely because I am a foreigner. I knew that I would bring something different to the film, so I needed a balance. My entire crew was Japanese and while I wrote my script in English the translation process, and later the rehearsal process, was a free-for-all session for all my cast and crew members to give creative input, so that I could capture some nuances that I might have overlooked if I had blindly followed my initial script."

As well as whatever updates Yeo and his crew made to the Kawabata's original story he also made a unique technical choice for "Kingyo" inspired by Hans Canosa's 2005 film "Conversations with Other Women": telling almost the entire story in split screen. Shooting most of the film simultaneously with two cameras and then splicing the footage together side by side on screen is an ingenious way of depicting the gulf between the two main characters, but there were times when Yeo worried about how this technique would be received. "I was quite worried that Kingyo would end up being a film that resorted only to a gimmick and on the contrary, during editing I was wondering whether I should eliminate the split screens. I don't want "Kingyo" to be thought of as a 'split screen film' but more like a film about lost love and such that happened to be told in split screen."

While thankfully "Kingyo's" split screen technique has been left intact Yeo is still putting the final touches on the film while keeping his ultimate end goal in mind. "All these short films I've made I consider preparations and practice for whatever feature film I can make soon." Soon might not be immediately though, "I still want to experiment more with what I can do," he explains, "My shorts have just started getting some festival circulation, so perhaps I'm more like testing the waters, seeing how audiences of different cultures and countries would react." If the test screening in Shinjuku is any indication though the reactions should be good. "I was very flattered by the sudden applause during the end credits. Maybe it was the surprise of seeing the name of a foreign director on the credits!"