August 24th marked the 9th anniversary of Kon Satoshi’s untimely death from pancreatic cancer. The world of cinema lost one of its greatest and most unique visionaries that day. Note that I intentionally do not relegate him to the moniker of “animation director”. Kon was a cinematic storyteller who happened to choose the medium of animation to tell his stories. I will even go as far to say he was one of the world’s best independent filmmakers specfically because his work emobodies the bold, unique, risk-taking, singular voice filmmaking often championed by Sundance and other independent film organizations. The framework of any of his movies or series translate just as well in live-action and his visual language is certainly informed by live-action filmmaking; as opposed to anime directing which pervades much of what those products are created to do.
My first exposure to Kon was the Magnetic Rose section of Otomo Katsuhiro’s animated omnibus Memories. The humanistic themes he unfolded through exquisite direction left an indelible impression, even greater than the namesake of the omnibus who up until then seemed to be the pinnacle of animated film direction, and whose Cannon Fodder episode was great but somehow paled in comparison. Because of this, I was ready and eager to see Kon’s feature-length debut Perfect Blue; needless to say the movie needs no further introduction. I then worked hard to secure screenings of his third movie Tokyo Godfathers at the San Diego Asian Film Festival when I was the international film programmer there. For some reason his sophomore feature, Millennium Actress, slipped under the radar or had not been well-known abroad enough to have English subtitled prints available, but I secured a copy of the DVD on a trip to Japan and thankfully was able to view this bittersweet, sublime ode to cinema.
I was excited when he announced a TV series, Paranoia Agent, but ironically living in Japan made it difficult to view (life does get in the way often) and I have yet to see his last completed directorial feature Paprika. But I will some day. But not having done so has not lessened in the least my admiration for this incredible auteur whose works tackled issues and taboos in Japanese society and culture (pop or otherwise) through unique examinations of human nature. Moreover, he had a clear understanding of the genres his movies occupied and was able to distort them through the medium of animation, freeing him to be visually unorthodox while still maintaining a high degree of thematic realism.
It is a shame the movie he was working on at the time he passed away, The Dream Machine, still remains unfinished. Production company Madhouse had pledged to complete it “no matter what” but later stated they did not have enough money. I see this as an unreasonable excuse as his legions of fans around the world would gladly crowdfund its completion if Madhouse had the forethought and collaborative mindset to do so. As recently as 2018, the founder of Madhouse stated production has been halted “indefinitely” as there are “no directors in the Japanese animation industry that could match Kon’s level of ability.” (from an article posted on Crunchyroll which is now deleted). My obvious answer to that statement is “cast a wider net”. Limiting the talent search to just Japan seems too single-minded, but absolutely expected from the local industry. For these reasons, Kon’s final story may never see the light of day.
Kon Satoshi remains one of my all time favorite filmmakers. If you are not familiar with Kon’s work, I would certainly encourage you to begin from the start and work your way chronologically through his filmography. I am hoping the 10th anniversary of his passing will prompt retrospectives to be held across film festivals throughout the world. If such information should come to light, I will be sure to share them on Indievisual’s social media.
Human relationships are a trial-and-error obstacle course people start navigating from childhood whether with friends made at school, romances begun and ended, to the co-workers with whom alliances, rivalries, or the aforementioned are also made or lost. These relationships are far more complex, however, when family is involved. Though family members can be as exasperating or incorrigible as any person encountered in life, the sense of duty, responsibility, and fealty to family is persuasive as well as ubiquitous. One family’s relationship is the focus of Tokiwa Shiro’s remarkable debut feature which breaths new life into the family drama while still obviously being informed by the works of masters such as Ozu and Naruse. The movie opens with Toda Erika and Sometani Shota eating ramen in a dark place. Where they are is unknown and their conversation suggests the ramen is sub-par but the best option given the hour. Before long, it is revealed they are dining at a hospital commissary that has–and thanks to them–is still waiting to close. Hurriedly finishing their meal (that’s not to say they finished their ramen), the two leave and we learn why the brother and sister are at the hospital. Two important concepts are introduced in this scene. One is Tokiwa’s understated storytelling; the situation is not concretely explained, but naturally reveals itself as it progresses. Second is the pivotal role food plays in the story.
Occuring over the long hours the Azuma family hold a traditional evening wake for their deceased father (nothing is being spoiled here) prior to his cremation the following day, the story itself spans the decades in their lives. During the course of the evening, events pivotal to the members’ memory are re-examined via the perspectives of the elder son (Kubozuka Yosuke), the eldest daughter (Toda), the youngest son (Sometani), and their mother (Saito Yuki). Things unknown, things unsaid, things not realized at one time in the past are revealed giving new meaning to the present and fresh understanding of what had previously been unbeknownst to one another. The obvious subtext is the evolving dynamics between parent and child, and among siblings to a certain degree, as adulthood prompts details about one another to be noticed or confessed. This does not necessarily mean immediate acceptance or comprehension of new revelations, but as they themselves become parents, children too will come to acknowledge if not appreciate some of the quandaries facing parenthood or marriage from which their parents may have shielded them. In a broader sense, the movie speaks to the human experience of first being a supporting player in the story of one’s parents then becoming the central figure of one’s own story as adults. Key to how this “passing of the baton” comes into play is the family meal. Journeys into the Azuma’s past are linked to dishes associated with a specific time in their lives which are cooked and served during the wake. As modern-day schedules also splinter Japan’s nuclear family to eat together less often, meals spent with family around home cooked dishes (by either father, mother, or even children in the case of this movie) are given extraordinary magnitude in the movie as the touchstones for family interaction, good or ill. However, this is not a “foodie” movie. These meals are family fare; home cooked dishes which give each and every family their own flavor (pun unintended). Whether it is a simple fried egg, preference for red or white miso, pan pizza, or the varied subtleties of sukiyaki, each provides the emotional impetus propelling the family’s evolving relationship and importance to the movie’s title.
At the heart of the story’s effectiveness is the impeccable structure of Tokiwa’s original script (yes, this is not an adaptation of a novel, comic, web series, etc.). Flashbacks must guide the viewer into the Azuma family’s past, but their beautifully timed placement within the story give shape to those unknown or unspoken events and personal emotions which ultimately redefine present-day notions. Tokiwa doesn’t so much peel away the layers obfuscating the truth about the Azuma family, but instead carefully brushes away the years of residue covering the beauty of their familial bond. By subverting the familiar framework of “skeletons in the closet” movies the payoffs for each of the characters also results in equal payoffs for the audience who organically become participants of the evening; perhaps even family members. Furthermore, by rendering a family not wholly tied by blood, Tokiwa draws a portrait of the the 21st century family. If blood relations are complicated, the relations between people suddenly thrown together via re-marriage are moreso. Thankfully, Tokiwa has also veered away from modern Japanese cinema’s propensity for verbose dialogue. The movie shows rather than tells–the understated storytelling mentioned earlier. Viewers must realize what is happening for themselves thus every smile, laugh, sob, or tear is genuinely earned. Free of mouthfuls of lines to utter, the actors are more nuanced with their actions and expressions therefore rendering living, breathing people. Outstanding performances abound, but special mention must be given to Toda, Mori Nana who plays Toda’s character as a young girl, Nagase Masatoshi, and Kubozuka whose presence essentially shifts the tone of the movie’s closing act.
Successfully employing honest, unpretentious storytelling and crafting heartfelt performances, The First Supper is–and it must be stressed again–a remarkable debut feature by Tokiwa. The movie he has patiently worked hard to realize over many years is a marvelously rendered, poignant unwinding and refastening of family ties that elevates the genre.
Thanks to an industry friend, I was invited to view the movie back in May at a pre-screening for the production’s inner circle and industry guests held at Imagica, the principal post-production facility employed by majors studios and independent films alike. This was my first time to watch a movie in their screening theater, though I have been there many years ago to check the subtitles for a Kitamura Ryuhei movie in one of their smaller screening rooms. The theater was by far larger than the screening rooms at Shochiku and Kinohaus. In attendance were actresses Mori Nana and Hyunri who has a small but important role in the story. As is usually the case, this was their first time viewing the movie in its entirety since wrapping of principal photography. Both addressed the attendees at Tokiwa’s behest, but Hyunri in particular had been so moved she teared up as she spoke. Afterward, I had the pleasure of meeting Tokiwa, producer Moriya Takeshi, and the team tasked with promoting the movie. They were kind enough to provide me with the materials used in the writing of this article. I certainly look forward to whatever story Tokiwa tells next and I hope to speak with him again and perhaps publish an interview on Indievisual sometime in the future.
The First Supper opens in Japan on November 1st. If you’re interested in screening the movie at your event, please contact me via Facebook or Instagram (both @indievisualhq) and I can help put you in touch with the print source.
Notes on the Margin
–– The movie first began as a concept producer Sugiyama Mai took to Tokiwa in December 2012 for a movie dealing with step families. –– Tokiwa completed the script in 2014 and used as a basis his feelings upon going through the process of his father being diagnosed with cancer and subsequently passing, and the funeral thereafter. –– Sometani was the first cast member to commit to the project and remained attached due to his belief in the strength of the script despite the years it took to begin filming. The impressive A-list cast for this first time feature also commited to the project based solely on their belief in the script’s potential. –– Principal photography began in February 2018 and was split into two parts: winter and summer based on the past and present-day sections of the story. The summer portion of photography began in June. –– Principal photography concluded in July with the filming of the scene between Nagase and Kubozuka involving sukiyaki. The shoot totalled 33 days. –– Tokiwa employed a very collaborative style of directing, often discussing and shaping scenes with the actors on set, on the day. Sometani commented his collaborative “ego-free” approach despite being the screenwriter was very pleasant.
The 2019 edition of the SKIP City International D-Cinema Festival concluded on July 21st with an awards ceremony during which International Competition Jury President Miike Takashi and Japanese Film Competition Jury President Ogigami Naoko distributed awards in each of the festival’s categories. As always, the focus of this post will zero in on the winners of the Japanese Film Competition.
Best Picture in the feature-length category went to Sacrifice by Tsuboi Taku.
Tsuboi’s feature directorial debut, it is the first to be produced through a scholarship from Rikkyo University’s Department of Body Expression and Cinematic Arts. While at Rikkyo, Tsuboi has been involved with movies such as Makoto Shinozaki’s Sharing (2014), Wish We Were Here (2018), and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Journey to the Shore (2015). Upon accepting the trophy, Tsuboi commented:
With a synopsis already reading much like a cautionary tale for our times when truth and conjecture are often mistaken for the same thing, this nod from the Japanese Competition Jury should place Sacrifice on anyone’s “must-see” or “one-to-screen” list as we head into the autumn festival season.
Best Picture in the shorts category was awarded to The Distant Light by Utsuno Tatsuya.
The movie stars Kimura Tomoki in this tale of a hunter dealing with loss as he attempts to raise his daughter in a snowy mountain village which the trailer paints as atmospheric and haunting; then the mood of the preview is disrupted by blunt imagery of deer hunting which hints there could be more weighty undertones.
The Audience Award in the feature-length category was given to Me & My Brother’s Mistress by co-directors Haga Takashi and Suzuki Sho.
A story directed by two men about a young girl bonding with her brother’s mistress winning the audience award certainly suggests Haga and Suzuki’s gender has entirely no relation to creating a story which connects with its viewers.
The Audience Award winner in the shorts category was given to Sticks and Stones directed by Sato Takuma.
Sato’s debut feature Don’t Say That Word (2014) won two awards at PFF Award and screened at the 19th Busan International Film Festival. Like that movie, Sticks and Stones sets its dramatic framework on its side–the “medical rehabilitation comeback story”–focusing more on its characters’ motivations to render a realistic relationship between two people unsure about their futures.
The SKIP City Award was bestowed on F is for Future by Isobe Teppei.
Teppei impressed with his short Who Knows About My Life (read my thoughts here) which has rightfully been picking up awards wherever it plays. Overnight Walk, his 50 minute follow-up collaboration with that movie’s star, Yashiki Hiroko, won the grand prize and two actress awards at the 4th Kashikojima Film Festival among others. Proving none of this was a fluke, his debut feature (by just two mintues) takes home the SKIP City Award and the access it grants to Sai-no-Kuni Visual Plaza facilities for his next project. If you’re not paying attention to this filmmaker, you should be.
Naoko Ogigami who recently directed the transgender-themed family movie Close-Knit had this message to say to the filmmakers at the ceremony:
Personally, I would add my hope they will keep telling stories which are unique, bold, and uncomprising in their vision. Whether produced under an independent framework or through a studio, compelling stories come in a variety of shapes and sizes. All of these filmmakers show incredible promise and Indievisual will endeavor to keep a watchful eye on them and their future works.
Chadwick Boseman’s peg rate has arguably been propelled by his role of T’Challa, and rightfully so. He has an upcoming movie 21 Bridges produced by the Russo Brothers through their AGBO label which will allow him to sink his teeth into a reportedly gritty 70s-style police drama. Getting him onboard this project will no doubt elevate its ability to attain financing, but so far there is no word of a director though ‘Narcos’ writer Doug Miro penning the screenplay is a positive sign. I suspect or hope Ken Watanabe and/or Hiroyuki Sanada will be offered major roles along with other Japanese or Japanese-American performers. This is an interesting tale which is apparently true despite the rather anime-esque premise (think “Afro Samurai). Find out more below:
Very happy to learn from this interview (in Japanese) director Hayakawa Chie is developing her Plan75 segment from Ten Years Japan into a feature-length. Plan75 was certainly one of the most impactful episodes of the short movie omnibus with a bold, emotionally dense, and salient subject matter which certainly demands further exploration beyond what the short format could only give an inkling.
Hayakawa, who studied photography at th New York School of Visual Arts, made a strong impression after her short movie Niagara was screened at Cannes in 2014. Since then, her profile and output has been rather low with only a handful of shorts in her filmography, only one of which is mentioned in the profile presented in the article–the Greece set and shot Bird. Why it has taken so long for this highly promising filmmaker to make her feature-length debut (as far as I can confirm) is odd to say the least.
Read my impressions of Plan75 as well as the all the other segments of Ten Years Japan at this link.