All bets were off with Last of the Wolves. It was the highly anticipated sequel to The Blood of Wolves, a gangster epic that was a throwback to Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity series what with its yakuza politics, police corruption, and fearless depiction of brutal violence. This crime world is based on the critically-acclaimed novels of Yuko Yuzuki so there is a lot of material to work with but with a number of major characters dead or locked up in the slammer, just where would the sequel go? To the younger generation as yakuza wars heated up in Hiroshima Prefecture!
This is the latest work by Kazuya Shiraishi (The Devil’s Path, Twisted Justice, One Night, Dawn of the Felines). He has a knack for filming edge-of-your-seat crime thrillers and Last of the Wolves managed to do justice to the first film and take things to the very next level thanks to two intensely physical performances, one from the intimidating presence of Ryohei Suzuki who plays a murderous yakuza thug, the other from Tori Matsuzaka who is wilier than a fox as a cop dodging death while double-dealing with gangsters. Director Kazuya Shiraishi explained more about the film, what drew him into the project, the talents that Suzuki and Matsuzaka have, and more in this interview done as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2021.
This interview was done with the help of Takako Pocklington, who translated my questions, Koichi Mori of the New York Asian Film Festival, who set up the interview and translated the answers, and also the film festival staff who pulled off an excellet NYAFF 2021! Many thanks go out to them and, of course, to Kazuya Shiraishi who participated!
Welcome to the world of JUNK HEAD
JUNK HEAD is a dark, dystopian sci-fi-horror film that alternates between the grotesque and the cute. Told through the medium of stop-motion animation, it presents a unique film world and unforgettable dolls animated to perfection in an experience that has wowed all who have seen it.
Its story is set in the far future at a time when humanity has achieved immortality through gene manipulation, but has lost the ability to procreate. An explorer is sent deep bowels of the Earth to recover genetic information from mutants. His journey across a landscape dank industrial landscape is always gripping due to the dense atmosphere created by moody lighting and highly detailed sets, highly cinematic due to camerawork, editing and animating that conveys thrilling action, and really fun to follow due to the dangerous creatures and demented characters who crash together over the course of the story.
The film is a true indie work in that it is the singular vision of its director, Takahide Hori. He is an interior director by trade but he had a sci-fi story he needed to tell and created an award-winning 30-minute version that attracted attention. Soon after, he quit his job to work as writer, director, editor, actor, (and more – watch the credits) with a small team over the course of seven years to complete the project, everyone creating sets, dolls, and special effects and then animating everything to bring the feature film to the big screen. His team included freelance creatives like stop-motion animator Atsuko Miyake, Ken Makino and Yuji Sugiyama who made props, sets, and worked on technical aspects like using Adobe After Effects to bring to life this unique and twisted animated vision. Once the film was finished, professional translator Emily Balistrieri, a freelance translator who has worked on novels like The Night is Short, Walk on Girl (here’s my review of the film), brought the language of the characters to life with puns and neologisms that fit the world perfectly – probably best seen in the “mashroom” scene where the main character goes on a mushroom hunt for a weird-looking penis-like vegetable growths that crawl around once plucked from their grotesque “beds.”
Earlier this year, JUNK HEAD became a word-of-mouth hit in Japan where it played to sold-out screenings at mini-theatres for many weeks. It has since been picked up for festival play at the New York Asian Film Festival and Fantasia, and prospects for theatrical releases seem good. I have had the chance to watch the film as part of the New York Asian Film Festival (review here) and now Atsuko Miyake, the film’s stop-motion animator, has generously given me the opportunity of an interview to explain her inspirations, her part in the production, what it was like working on the project for so long, and what she hopes happens next for the world of JUNK HEAD.
Despite knowing that low-budget films are often shot very quickly, when I saw that Shinji Imaoka was going to be at Osaka Asian Film Festival 2021, I was surprised at how quick his return was since he was at the 2020 edition with the drama Reiko and the Dolphin for which I had interviewed him. Of course, since he has a background in making pink films he knows how to do a quick turnaround on a production but an even bigger surprise lay in the subject of his film: a divorce as seen through the eyes of a child done by way of the musical genre. That and it was one of at least four(???) films he made in 2020!
The film is a star vehicle for starlet Yuune Sakurai who takes on the role of Haruka, an 11-year-old girl who is navigating experiencing the sensation of love for the first time while her parents Nobutaka (Ryujyu Kobayashi) and Kumiko (Yuri Ogino) are about to divorce. The sweetness and bitterness come together over one weekend spent with the fractured family at a campsite. The emotions come out when people burst into song and dance. A musical about divorce? I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it before but it works. However, it is a title that may prove divisive as Sakurai gives the sort of beyond-her-years performance that some people will be bowled over by while others may find too artificial to take seriously. Also, girls that age don’t act like that. It depends upon your perspective, ultimately. You can read my review here and also a playfulness as music video sequences and cute on-screen text and images are used.
While working on the review and interview, three other films by director Imaoka were discovered and two were released: Yome wa, Toriatsukai chuui! Part 1 & 2 and Aoi-chan wa yarasete kurenai. It’s all very impressive and so I wanted to find out more about the background of A Rainbow-colored Trip and how director Imaoka worked with his talented cast, getting some great performances from newbie actress Yuune Sakurai and veteran Yuri Ogino (East of Jefferson and Human Comedy in Tokyo) and also get some insight.
This interview was done with the help of Takako Pocklington, the talented interpreter who worked on the Reiko and the Dolphin interview and most of my other interviews.
There were two films by actor/writer/director Yutaro Nakamura at the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2021. They shared actors such as An Ogawa (For Rei) but wildly diverged stylistically. The first, Sweet Bitter Candy, was a standard-issue drama of bad romance and schoolgirls while A New Wind Blows featured a storyline that was wayward and dreamy and clearly shot guerrilla style in the suburbs. It was punctuated with scenes that offer visceral emotions, surprising twists, and a eccentric-cum-humanistic bent that made it stand out.
The film introduces us to a set of characters – Yujiro (Yujiro Hara), Hikari (Hikaru Saiki), Takaya (Takaya Shibata), Anzu (An Ogawa), and Kotaro (Yutaro Nakamura, the director himself) – who are cycled through in a number of stories where they get together and alternately torment and fall in love with each other, first as high schoolers and then as young adults later, before returning to them as high schoolers. Mental illness, prejudice, and literal bed hopping take place and there are extremes of emotions that go from normality to very dark. However, as scenes and sequences slip by, there is a sense of care and comfort and possibility. You can read my review here and also a playfulness as music video sequences and cute on-screen text and images are used.
Yutaro Nakamura took time out of his schedule to answer questions relating to A New Wind Blows.
This interview was done with the help of Takako Pocklington, who translated between English and Japanese to help bring director Nakamura’s answers to this blog.
For the last few years, Osaka Asian Film Festival has been screening MOOSIC LAB films. These works are the result of the pairing together of up-and-coming directors, actors, actresses, and musical performers into a unit to create a movie. The final products are almost always idiosyncratic in some way since they are the results of the combined talents of whoever has been grouped together. This year’s entry was POP!, a quirky drama featuring dry comedy and existential angst. It plays on the unique combination of director Masashi Komura (小村昌士), lead actress Rina Ono (小野莉奈), and DJ/producer Aru-2.
Rina Ono takes the lead role of Rin Kashiwakura, a 19-year-old who is on the cusp of turning 20, the official age of becoming an adult. With the approach of such a momentous occasion in her life one would expect excitement but what she feels is frustration and confusion as she struggles to understand how she fits in with others and the world at large, and just what she wants to do. An early dream of becoming an actress has become side-tracked and she works part-time as an official mascot on a struggling local TV charity program and part-time at a remote mountainside car park where nothing much happens. An encounter with a mad bomber leaving explosive packages around town gives her some impetus to move forward.
This description may seem full of random elements but they are deliberate and filmed in such a way by Masashi Komura that they form a collage of situations that form the entry point into Rin’s existential crisis – nothing seems to join together story-wise, long sequences happen in empty locations, and scenes can be devoid of propulsive action and sound and time. At its centre is a strong yet reticent performance from Rina Ono who keeps our attention. Overlaying everything is the downtempo lo-fi musical tracks of of Aru-2. Its lazy beats, samples, and various audio imperfections are indicative of both what a person Rin’s age might listen to and also how she feels. When combined, at times, this experience is frustrating, tiring, and confusing but there is also a lot of humour and heart as Rin struggles to make sense of things. These myriad of emotions reminded me of what I felt in my own adolescence. In short, the film had successfully made me feel Rin’s existential crisis as she tries to pull herself out of her stagnant life and move forward like the adults around her. The final result is a truly unique film (my review).
I wasn’t the only one, it seems. The film won the Grand Prix and Rina Ono also nabbed the Best Actress Award at the MOOSIC LAB awards, thus showing that quality of the film. Director Masashi Komura kindly agreed to take part in an interview to explain how the different elements of the film match up and he furnished many interesting answers.
A relatively new filmmaker, Komura has worked on a number of projects including co-writing the screenplay for The Man Who Was Eaten, which was featured at Osaka Asian Film Festival 2016, writing and directing the 2017 film LEO, and appearing in Ken Ninomiya’s The Matsumoto Tribe (2017). Komura talked more about POP!, how the project came together, his inspirations, his approach to manipulating time, and working with Aru-2 and gifting his sound to audiences.
This interview was done with the massive help of Takako Pocklington, who translated between English and Japanese to help bring director Komura’s answers to the page.
While getting a World Premiere in the Competition section of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2021 would be a sign of quality for director Satoko Yokohama and her film Ito, her work ended up taking two high-profile accolades at the event as judges awarded it the Grand Prix (Best Picture Award) and viewers selected it for the Audience Award. These wins are richly deserved as Ito laces a youth film and a heartfelt tribute to all-things Aomori around a charming central performance from rising actress Ren Komai (駒井蓮).
In the film, Komai plays Ito Soma, a high school girl who lives with her father (Etsushi Toyokawa – 豊川悦司) and maternal grandmother (Yoko Nishikawa – 西川洋子) in a small town just outside Hirosaki city, Aomori. Ito embodies various aspects of the local culture, from having a thick Tsugaru accent to an innate skill in playing the Tsugaru shamisen, an ability inherited from her late mother. Alas, Ito refuses to practice and stays silent due to her embarrassment over her country roots and also her melancholy over never having known her mother. What puts the girl on the path of self-acceptance and self-expression is an unlikely job at a maid café where she meets a coterie of kind people who offer encouragement and get her to embrace her cultural and family heritage on her own terms. You can read my review here.
The film is based on a novel by Osamu Koshigaya and while its Japanese title “Itomichi” was shortened to “Ito” for the international version, the story still communicates all of the charms of Aomori. It is the latest project from Satoko Yokohama (横浜聡子), a graduate of the Film School of Tokyo who independently produced her first feature German + Rain (2007) which won the Directors Guild of Japan Newcomer Award. Next came Bare Essence of Life (2009) and The Actor (2015) which have both been screened at international festivals. Both she and lead actress Ren Komai hail from Aomori Prefecture, the setting of the film and audiences will be able to detect their knowledge and closeness really brought out deep details and atmosphere.
Director Yokohama kindly took part in an interview where she talked about adapting the novel, working with Ren Komai to get a moving portrayal of the main character plus an impressive shamisen performance, and what it means to be a filmmaker from Aomori and returning there to shoot a film.
This interview was done through the translation skills of Takako Pocklington and the film/festival staff who set everything up.
The Osaka Asian Film Festival has a number of sidebars and one of the more exciting is dedicated to works supported by the Housen Cultural Foundation, a funding body that provides support to students at the graduate school level. It is here that you will get challenging, deeply personal, or experimental works from a new generation of voices. This year’s crop of titles were all particularly involving and unique. One film that really spoke to me was Gotō-san from writer/director Hiroshi Gokan which struck at the heart of the uncertainty of our age.
Gotō-san is the story of a young man who has chosen to pursue an unconventional life. The titular character, Gotō (Hirofumi Suzuki 鈴木浩文), lives and works in a 24-hour internet café in Tokyo. He seems to have struck the jackpot when it comes to leading a laidback lifestyle and he even gets into a romance with a fellow internet café resident, a young woman named Riko (Tomomi Fukikoshi 吹越ともみ). Beneath this quirky narrative, director Gokan subtly shows trouble brewing in the background with glimpses of a deteriorating jobs market and the Covid-19 pandemic rearing their head until they eventually turf Gotō out into the harsh reality of life. It’s a breath-takingly bleak series of unfortunate events that radically alter the narrative and causes our lead character’s lifestyle to unravel.
You can read my review here, but I felt that Hiroshi Gokan made an astute assessment of the fragility of society that worked because it used an offbeat set-up and characters to take in many socio-economic details without belabouring any points.
So, who is the director? Hiroshi Gokan earned a Master’s in directing at the Graduate School of Film and New Media, Tokyo University of the Arts. Teto, his first feature and graduation project, starred Sakura Ando. His 2012 short Aohige was a co-production between Tokyo University of the Arts and Korean Academy of Film Arts. He has worked on making-of videos for directors such as Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Masayuki Suo and Shinobu Yaguchi. He generously participated in an email interview where he provided a lot of answers that revealed why he cast lead actors Hirofumi Suzuki and Tomomi Fukikoshi, how he created the space of the internet café, and also his stance on weaving real-life into his stories and the impact of Covid-19 on the production.
This interview was done with the invaluable help of Takako Pocklington who translated between English and Japanese.
“No idea’s original, there’s nothing new under the sun. It’s never what you do, but how it’s done,” Nas from the album Best of Nas
While every country around the world has its organised crime gangs, few hold the level of mystique and infamy that Japan’s Yakuza does. Their style, codes, hierarchies, history, and their full-body tattoos have long been the subject of books, video games, news articles, and films to the point that they have become part of global popular culture. In Japan, many directors have either worked in the genre of used elements of it in their own films. Consequently, unless a director has a strong story, style, or philosophy, films based on the nefarious activities of Japan’s criminal underworld have a have a feel of deadened familiarity. This familiarity was not what I felt when watching JOINT.
JOINT tells the story of a guy trying to get clear of the criminal underworld but getting caught up in a gang war. While its story has many plot points familiar from other films, the realistic way it is shot, the details in the narrative and the performances of its cast created an atmosphere that was unlike many other contemporary Japanese crime films and so it felt different. More importantly, the atmosphere was so strong it made the film gripping and I felt that I was taken into a different world, one better reflective of Japanese criminal gangs operating today. It’s pretty remarkable considering that JOINT is the debut feature of director Oudai Kojima.
Born in Kobe in 1994, Oudai Kojima is a director, cinematographer, and editor who makes music videos, commercials, and, now, fiction films. He was raised in New York from the age of 3 to 13. After returning to Japan he studied architecture at the University of Tokyo. His entry into the film world began by studying under filmmaker Tomokazu Yamada for a year and a half before he began production on JOINT, his debut feature. I saw it when it was played at the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2021. He kindly took part in an email interview where he answered questions about his background, the work put in to JOINT to create its realistic atmosphere, and how he got such convincing performances from his cast.
My questions were translated into Japanese by Takako Pocklington while director Kojima answered in both English and Japanese.
The Japanese transcript is first and it is followed by English. Click on a link below to be taken to one or the other.
I wish I were better at writing about acting because every now and then I watch a film where there are astonishing performance that I am spellbound and profoundly moved. In those situations, I want to wax lyrical to do justice to what I have seen. Of course, every other aspect of the film counts, too. When I watched the drama yes,yes,yes I was not quite prepared for the actors who are, raw vulnerable, surprising, realistic, and honest.
Director Akihkro Yano worked with his cast closely and stripped away most movie artifice to get phenomenal performances to convey the emotionally intense situation in his script. The story concerns a family reacting to the news that the matriarch Sayuri (Nahoko Kawasumi) may die. This sets off emotional chain reactions that cause conflict, particularly with teenage son Takeaki (Kazuma Uesugi), before there is eventually, healing. It is a heartfelt story and it felt real. Indeed, it made me cry multiple times and gave a feeling of catharsis as I took in its lesson of learning to appreciate and love those around and thought deeply about people in my own life.