Wednesday, October 22, 2008

[TIFF 2008 In Memory Of] Jun Ichikawa

The first time I encountered Jun Ichikawa in person was during last year's Japan Film Festival in Singapore held at the National Museum, where he was the festival's Director-in-Attendance, having a showcase of his movies presented, which included his latest movie at the time, How to Become Myself, and to conduct a Masterclass Lecture for a 250 strong audience.

I do recall fondly when the Masterclass Lecture was over, a group of fans went up to him for photo opportunities and to request autographs. I was close enough to hear him comment, being quite amused at the enthusiastic response from the audience who stayed behind, that he felt like a rock star. He did pose gamely with his fans, and responded to some personal questions outside of the session, and signed off a couple of autographs too. He came across as very affable and without airs, and that left a deep impression on me.

I was shocked then saddened to learn of his passing away last month. I had looked forward to meeting him in person again during this year's Tokyo International Film Festival as he would have presented his latest movie buy a suit.

In remembrance of the great director, here's something from my archives to share with you, which is an excerpt of his Masterclass session held in Singapore almost a year ago. It's a pity that we won't get to see his intention of making a film about the elderly, come to fruition, something that he made mention about then.

LtoR: Leong Chun Meng (Singapore Film Society), Jun Ichikawa and Interpreter

The following panel discussion was done through an interpreter, as Jun Ichikawa felt more comfortable conversing in his native tongue. So I suppose some bits might have been lost in translation as I can't understand Japanese too. But nonetheless, to the best of my ability, here it is:

Q: Could you tell us more about the writer of the story How to Become Myself (Kaori Mado), and the inspiration for the movie?
Jun Ichikawa (JI): First of all, the author of the story (Kaori Mado) is a lady about 30 years old now. She's now a staff of an advertising agency for mobile service provider NTT Docomo, one of Japan's largest. The author is brought up in a girl's only school from junior to senior high, and the book is something like her autobiography. I read the book and I loved it, especially the themes of the "fake" and "real" me. Each time I think about the "fake" me, I think about the author.

When we talk about Dazai Osamu, his works contain issues about the "real" and "fake" me. Everyeon when in their youths will face this issue, so I thought that it's good Dazai appears in the movie, so it's inside.

(Ed: I obviously haven't read the books by Dazai, but I think this one could be the reference point of this read/fake me issue, about the character having an incapability of revealing himself to others and is forced to uphold a facade.)

Q: Was the movie adapted from a short story?
JI: It's about 200 pages.

Q: The actress playing Juri (Riko Narumi) had a subtle way of showing emotion. Was it difficult to get her to show her emotions?
JI: On the contrary I felt that she expressed a lot of emotions! She's a child actress who had started acting at age 5, and she's a very good actress. She became popular from a television series, and acting for television is easier. But for the movie, I've been telling her not to express herself so much! She's 14 now, and in my opinion, a child prodigy in acting.

Q: In your previous movies, there are a number of female characters in their youths. Are you interested in this kind of stories, or have any message to convey to this particular group?
JI: If I use a young actress, it's easier to get the budget (laughs) and to convince the producer. When I look at my filmography, you might misconstrue it as I'm liking little girls but I'm not! I believe that inside everyone's heart there's a little girl, and good writers have this young girl inside them.

Q: Why do you like to express the common theme of loneliness in your films?
JI: When you're watching a movie in a darkened theatre, you are alone. Watching a movie on a DVD doesn't count. When I study good American movies, there's a theme of loneliness in them too. Stories which usually have a main character who's lonely, and then there's a breakthrough, resulting in a changed person. Loneliness is a condition to have a good movie. I watched a lot of 70s American movies like Taxi Driver, and I was influenced by those movies made after the Vietnam War, which has a lot to do on loneliness inside. When I was young I watched a lot of these movies.

Q: You have featured Tokyo in many of your movies, and sometimes successfully made metropolitan Tokyo seem like a small town. What kind of Tokyo would you like to present to moviegoers?
JI: I think I share something similar to Woody Allen. Woody Allen was born and brought up in New York. In a big city, there's a lot of people, and in a crowd you'll sometimes feel alone. I thought movie directors brought up in big cities share a similar sense as what I have felt.

Q: Every director brings personal experience into the film he directs. Does your own experience help in your movies?
JI: I'm 60 years old, and have already gone through many sorts of lives in my own, and those represented in books and movies. When it comes to this movie, I tried my best to understand the feelings of the author of the novel, and think about the big issue now in Japan, which is bullies. I was thinking about the issue in the context of my young grandchild.

There was a question about the camera techniques used in Tony Takitani, and the panel in panel shots for How to Become Myself.
JI: In Tony Takitani I was thinking about flipping a page from left to right as if I was reading the novel. As for today's movie, the panels are in one screen showing the different things different people are doing at the same time. We can see many things happen at the same time on one screen, which you cannot do so in real life. With digital processing this becomes easy, and it's actually not considered a high tech method. I do not think I'm giving the impression that I'm doing something high tech.
Comment: This technique might be appropriate here since you're showing both the "real" me and the "fake" me together...
JI: When I watch MTV, they're doing the same thing (laughs)

Q: I noticed in Tokyo Marigold, Tony Takitani and now How to Become Myself, are you also exploring the identity crisis of modern people?
JI: I don't think much about identity crisis.

Q: With the "real" and "fake" me personae in today's movie, Eriko from Tokyo Marigold and her real and commercial self, in Death in the Hospital the shots of the hospital and the real world, in Tony Takitani you have 4 characters played by 2 persons, what is the message you want to send to the audience about this real and "virtual real" worlds?
JI: I like something that comes with realism. I'm having a hard time trying to understand the question (laughs). I don't think it is useful to analyze my works, as I think movies is something you just enjoy. Sometimes movie critics analyze my movies in ways I've never expected. For me, I make movies as I like and as I want, straightforwardly according to my feelings.

Q: Did you always know you wanted to go into film?
JI: I was doing oil painting as I wanted to study in the National Art University. I drew a lot and tried to enrol but failed each time. A friend discovered that I can draw good storyboards for commercials, and I joined a commercial production company, which started to employ me to make commercials. The commercials I made were well accepted by the public, and one day someone came and approach me to make movies. So in a sense I was fortunate.

Q: How did your commercial experience influence your filmmaking?
JI: It's a negative influence (laughs)! For example, the cut is too short, and I have the habit of expressing more superficially than going deep. If you had watched my debut movie, you'll be shocked! The cuts are short and fast, and there's no room for you to breathe breathe or relax.

Q: Any advice for making a first film? Does it have to start with scriptwriting, or doing commercials first?
JI: You can start tomrrow, and use your own camera. The issue is what you want to express. You can take many years. The most important thing is to think what you want to express. And to everybody, the first debut product is important.

Q: Are you doing any films now, and what is it about?
JI: It is still under planning, so I can't announce it yet. If you've seen Wild Strawberries by the late Ingmar Bergman about the elderly, then yes I would like to do something like that. I'm tired with girls movies (laughs).

Q: Do you like to keep your movies slow?
JI: I think I'm trying to let go of my habit from commercials, with the fast cuts. So my movies tend to have longer cuts and slower shots. Sometimes 15 minutes into the start of my movie when I'm watching it in a cinema, I can hear snores (laughs), but I let it be as I can't do anything about it.

Ichikawa-san also mentioned that during editing process, he tends to think about "self", so perhaps the theme of loneliness tend to creep in as you're alone in that process.

Q: What's the state of the Japanese movie industry today compared to the 60s and 70s?
JI: It's terrible. The movie production companies don't have enough human resource. For example, Akira Kurosawa was with Toho, and Ozu was with Shochiku Kinema. There's no such arrangements now. All of us are free and don't belong to companies. We are daily hired, which also means "daily-fired". Even producers are finding it a hard time to find jobs. We also have to struggle with low budget when trying to make good movies.

Q: Having worked with so many actresses, which one do you consider the best to work with, and is there anyone else you would like to work with?
JI: I think it'll be kind of rude to rank them in that sense, so I won't do that.
Q: Then which one left the deepest impression?
Ichikawa: Perhaps Riko Narumi in this movie. I didn't know of her as I don't watch much television, and someone introduced her to me. Now I think I have to do more auditions, and meet more actresses.

Q: In real life it may not be easy for young people to change their lives around. Did you have the intention to make the movie tinge with some sadness and uncertainty?
JI: In the original story, one interesting thing was the words "Happy End" appearing in it. When you look at Japan society now, it's hard to find "Happy End" and what exactly it is. I think it's about the wish you want to get, and this feeling that makes the movie interesting. Mobile phones are featured quite a lot in the movie, but I didn't want to make it "in" and "trendy".

Q: What are the influences Ozu has on your films?
JI: It's no point trying to copy his methods. But I want to learn from him the spirit of a movie director - protect what we believe, and to stick to what we want to speak about. Ozu is the director that I love the most.

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