Recent, Special Report

25 Japanese Directors Talk Pandemic and Looking Ahead II

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Following are more intriguing and candid responses by filmmakers who are striving to tell stories without compromise, but have had to take stock of what that will mean in a new normal film industry.

This is the second part of a two-part article. If you arrived here from a web search or link, click here for the first part.

Kato Yoshio Header

Since his sophomore 3ft Ball and Souls was picked up for international sales by Japanese distributor Gaga, Kato has not rested on his laurels. Though active in television production, he has been planning, writing, and shooting short movie projects. He also finished his third feature length, Memory Door (translated title), which tells the story of Kazuya, a corporate hotshot in his 20s, who becomes enamored with a Reiko, a mother and divorcee with dementia who works at a cafe where patients with dementia can interact with loved ones.

For me, as a television director, the different requirements thrust upon work in the pandemic has made it even harder than before it began. But, work is hard in the first place. Whether or not there’s a pandemic doesn’t matter. The stories I want to film in the future may be influenced by it, but they won’t intentionally deal with it in any special way. Co-existing with viruses is what humans do, so I’ll accept it all, COVID or not, and simply keep going about my business.

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Fukuma was enamored with cinema since he was a middle-schooler, and from his third year in high school was in and out of Wakamatsu Productions and occasionally appeared in their movies. As a poet, film critic, a master degree holder in the Humanities, and a professor emeritus, his erudite background is reflected in his movies. As a result, the only way he can tell his stories is by producing them independently. Equal parts metaphysical metaphor and punk song, his latest Paradise Lost is no exception.

I shot a documentary between March and April of last year. Aside from the main focus of the movie, the camera caught the neighborhoods and people being affected by the pandemic. How should I process this? I’ve been unable to get my thoughts straight about it so the production has been put on hold.

Fundamentally, my attitude toward my own artistic expression up to now won’t be compelled to change in a “post-COVID world.” Currently, though it’s a superficial change, the things I want there to be progress actuality aren’t making progress. That’s what I want to call into question.

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Fukuma Keiko is the indispensable half of Fukuma Kenji’s filmmaking. She serves as producer, coordinator, and publicist at their production company Tough Mama.

There was a large decline in audience attendance. This is mainly because just about every person who normally doesn’t watch movies very much (and viewers who go if they have a personal connection to the work) did not come to the theater. However, movie fans who ordinarily go to the theater to watch movies showed up and even though their numbers were few [the movie] certainly had an effect on them. Moreover, the big distribution companies anticipated the decline in audience numbers and drastically pushed back their release dates which created a void particularly in art house theater schedules. As a result, theaters became inventive such as arranging [screenings] of old movies and such, so when we asked for a special retrospective of [our] past movies, the request was easily granted and we were able to realize retrospective screenings in a number of art house theaters outside of Tokyo which we had never done before. If anything, this was a significant achievement in terms of our vocation as artists to have our work seen.

I don’t believe the basic way we think about our filmmaking will change very much after the pandemic. During this world-shaking “event” people are being made to question their way of living. However, this is a fundamental constant in life, and should we decide to revert to fundamentals, I’d like to delve deeper into the theme of “people live as a result of people.”

I believe the more proper way of looking at the situation is the transformation of the world is speeding up due to COVID-19.

Takayama Kohei
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Since Whole, his refreshingly balanced look at identity and stereotypes in Japan through the eyes of its biracial population, won the Japan Cuts Award Special Mention, Kawazoe has provided his skills on the sets of various local and international productions including Paramount’s upcoming Snake Eyes. He has also completed his next short, Echoes from a Bridge, which has been selected to the Japanese Short Film Competion at the SKIP CITY INTERNATIONAL D-Cinema FESTIVAL 2021. He is also the co-director of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics Official Film spearheaded by Kawase Naomi.

Right before the pandemic occurred I moved to Tokyo to begin working full-time in the film industry. I was excited to further my career but unfortunately, last year was incredibly difficult in this aspect. I was also planning to shoot a self-funded short film but had to put it on hold because I couldn’t risk using my savings when jobs were scarce. But even in the midst of a pandemic, my loved ones and I are still alive and in good health so I am very grateful.

Like other filmmakers, I feel I will be very careful regardless of whether or not the world goes back to its previous state. But I think this will not affect the stories I would like to tell. I’ve always wanted to tell stories of humanity, resilience, and hope, so I believe that will not change. As a matter of fact, I think the experience has strengthened my determination to continue making films that are important and have the capacity to make a difference in people’s lives.

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The short movies Hayakawa shot as she taught herself to shoot video while majoring in photography at the School of Visual Arts in New York were exhibited in New York, Los Angeles, London, and Toronto. After returning to Japan a decade later, she took night courses in filmmaking resulting in Niagra, a short which screened at Cannes and won grand prizes at the Pia Festival in 2014 as well as the International Women’s Film in Seoul. She has been developing the feature length adaptation of her Ten Years Japan segment Plan75 which is scheduled to go before cameras in 2021.

My goal was to shoot the feature length version of Plan75, but because of the pandemic it was decided doing physical location shoots and such would probably be difficult, so the shoot dates were pushed to the following year (2021). However, that doesn’t mean the shooting schedule had been put together in detail. Also, another movie on which I’m involved with as a co-writer was postponed.

I was astonished by the fact aspects of the world depicted in Plan75 echoed scenes of the coronavirus pandemic in our world. For example, temporarily erected coronavirus-specific clinics or hospitals remarkably resembled the impromptu euthanasia facilities (rows of beds separated by curtains in spaces like gymnasiums) which appear in Plan75, choosing who lives and dies which was actually carried out such as denying coronavirus treatment to some elderly people, and even in Japan there’s a card which indicates an elderly person’s wish to concede a ventilator to a young person. It felt like fiction had been overshadowed by reality.

I drastically rewrote the script for the feature-length version since the pandemic. What’s right? What’s wrong? In a topsy-turvy society where there are no easy answers, I myself am once again thinking about what kind of world I hope for and how I want to live life. In the Plan75 short I included a message of “we can’t have this kind of savage future”, but in the feature I now want to clearly express the hope I myself find in people instead of depicting the chaos of society and just ending it there.

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There is a discerning artistic eye at work in Takayama’s narratives such as The Path Leading to Love and Invisible Creatures but not at the expense of their substance. On the contrary, his visual language enriches the audience’s experience of their allusive tales. At the same time, he continues to experiment with his style such as a short he shot through a subsidy from the Tokyo Metropolitan government. He is now in post-production on a movie which recently wrapped shooting.

An example I’ll cite is the subsidies local governments or public administrations have made available to assist cultural and artistic activities. I made a movie, too, by taking advantage of the Tokyo Metropolitan government’s “Cheer for Art” project, but since there was little risk for the producing side, I was able to try out a bold concept. What I experimented with there, I was able to put to use in the movie I shot afterward. Additionally, a brand new short I was shooting up until just the other day also made use of a subsidy from the Agency for Cultural Affairs’ ongoing support program. With subsidies like these I felt a bit more leeway in the budget so I didn’t have to shoot on an impossible schedule and in turn had the advantage of allowing me to pursue quality. It’s my hope a masterpiece will be born out of the movies making use of such subsidies, and that financial assistance for Japan’s culture and art will be enhanced in the future.

Next, I want to talk about the impact on the production set I experienced. To be frank, shooting a movie while practicing COVID safety measures was difficult. In my case, first of all we decided to reduce the number of people and filmed with only the absolute minimum number of crew members. I personally liked the mobility of the smaller team, but simultaneously having to deal with coronavirus prevention meant we had to pay careful attention to so many things, and that was nerve-racking. We referred to the guidelines set forth by every film commission, but they were a bit elaborate so it was difficult to determine just how much was truly necessary or what could realistically be enforced. Conversely, specific information about which types of prevention have what kind of results was extremely difficult to see, and for a small scale movie set, I felt things ground to a halt while we had to find out the actual effectiveness.

This is something I often hear being said, but instead of the coronavirus itself changing the world, I believe the more proper way of looking at the situation is the transformation of the world is speeding up due to COVID-19. Therefore, I personally haven’t sensed a change in my values. And since I originally considered art as something that anticipates the future, you could possibly say I’m becoming even more confident in the values I’ve held. As one example, it seems like information or communication is being exchanged almost entirely over the internet with the decline in people going out, but the shift toward this itself already existed beforehand. One of the things about that I’ve been thinking about is the question of people’s physical bodies. There aren’t many opportunities for people to actually feel their own bodies on the internet. So, I think taking into account the audiences’ physical bodies when making a movie will become increasingly important in the future. At first glance enjoying a movie is a passive act, but there could be potential for an experience in which the viewer’s body and the actor’s body on the screen resonate with one another.

There is something that does concern me amid the rapid changes to the world as a result of the pandemic, and that is people with extreme assertions are becoming more common in society (anti-maskers, Qanon followers, etc.). This is undoubtedly caused by information becoming internet-based and people choosing to view only biased information. However, the question which must be considered is how should information or cultural arts be provided in such a society. In this post-truth era, the severing of dialogue between people of differing opinions is a huge problem.

Furthermore, in the field of cultural anthropology there has been an ideological shift to “seriously accept” animism and other ideologies which had not been taken seriously from a Western perspective. Moreover, there’s a vague notion this might be helpful not just for the ethics of simply respecting others, but in breaking the impasse of Western society. This line of thought will greatly influence my filmmaking. Come to think of it, we probably haven’t been able to “seriously accept” people immediately close to us even before distant strangers. My new movie which wrapped shooting just days ago precisely deals with this matter as its theme.

Enjoying streamed movies at home is nice, but sure enough my desire to enjoy that excitement together with someone at a movie theater has gotten stronger.

Kawasaki Ryo
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Kushida has been directing award-winning commercials for Tokyo-based production company Pyramid Film since 2006. His feature film debut Woman of the Photographs employs a striking visual and editorial style that immerses the audience in a somewhat surreal narrative dealing with contemporary social realities. It screened in nearly 50 countries world-wide and won multiple awards before being released in Japan in January of 2021.

Many of the meetings prior to filming were remote meetings due to the pandemic. The good thing about remote meetings is that everyone now listens to people’s opinions until they’re finished. Plus, I think your face always being shown on screen also has had a big influence. People are trying to be a “nice person” in meetings. The somehow aloof nature of the videos pouring out in the world now might be an affect of everyone having become a “nice person”.

Currently many of the videos that I see strike me as videos by journalists communicating facts. And what they show is the indication that people around the world are divided. Footage of fighting between people are broadcast repeatedly on screens. What I think will be necessary in the future are movies that will let common emotions be shared between people regardless of nationality, culture, language, gender, or age. I hope to make the kind of movie through which two people who disagree can feel they share common feelings by watching the same movie.

Kawasaki Ryo Header

Kawasaki was the producer, director, writer, editor, and also handled costume duties on her debut feature Wasted Eggs to keep costs down as a “self-produced” (the meaning of the Japanese phrase “jishuu”) movie. She was again the writer, director, and editor of her short movie anthology Seasons of Woman which spanned a six year period to put together. Though she claims to be moving on from “self-produced” filmmaking to try her best in commercial movies, she hopes there will be opportunities to create the kind of projects that foster an understanding of the true merits of feminism and gender equality issues rather than what’s misunderstood about them.

There was a screening on February 2nd, 2020 of my movie Anata Mitaini, Naritakunai which was produced through the 2019 edition of the Agency for Cultural Affairs’ New Directions in Japanese Cinema project. At the time, the screening managed to happen without a hitch, and pre-show greetings were able to be held too, but screenings of my short movie anthology Seasons of Woman in December that same year, which happened as the cases of COVID-19 rose day to day, restricted the number of pre-show greetings and also turned out to be pretty harsh on its box-office.

Additionally, Wasted Eggs was scheduled to be released on February 26, 2021, but was postponed to April 2nd along with the extension of the state of emergency. In Japan, restaurants had to stop doing business after 8pm and this kept dragging on the situation in which movie theaters were unable to hold late shows despite the lack of financial assistance.

I also shot a music video around the summer of last year, but due to COVID-19, the schedule often changed and a start date just couldn’t be decided. Since summers in Japan are really humid and very hot, filming while wearing masks was very hard so the entire staff were careful to get enough oxygen while we went about with the shoot. Meanwhile, other directors and actors around me lost work as the difficult conditions went on. It’s been very tough, but even so I’ll open-mindedly move ahead with everyone helping one another continue making movies.

I get the sense with budgets for COVID safety measures having grown, it’s become kind of hard to establish a plan for movies themselves. Particularly, I think it’s probably going to become really tough to pitch original movies by newcomers. Also, because of COVID the release periods will be pushed back and it’ll become a scramble for theater schedules making it difficult to show movies under the ideal situation. Even so, I was able to realize that I still do want to shoot movies especially as a result of this disruptive situation. Enjoying streamed movies at home is nice, but sure enough my desire to enjoy that excitement together with someone at a movie theater has gotten stronger. I want to continue fearlessly creating film projects that have backbone.

There seems to have been positive changes too in the middle of these hardships. Remote meetings and stage greetings are on the rise and the expansion of new methods of communicating are really good things. I also became aware of my own candid feelings because I was under restrictions. I’m a homebody, but I’ve never before wished to go out or to meet and talk with people as much as I had while I was unable go out due to the state of emergency. I’ve experienced firsthand that the connection between people is what’s important.

I believe the challenge ahead is how to depict our experience of the pandemic in the future. Like war movies or those dealing with natural disasters, movies that can pass down this fact to young people of future generations will gradually become necessary. It isn’t clear to me yet how to depict this, but I think at some point the day is going to come I make a movie about the world today.

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Yuasa developed a passion for cinematic storytelling while studying for her BA in Architecture. Upon graduation, she studied television dramatic directing at Kinoshita Productions and has been working as a television director while developing her film career. She possesses a characteristic style which contrasts dark humor with nuanced poignancy while dealing with matters of human relationships such as her recent shorts Ordinary Everyday and Coming Back Sunny, the latter she hopes to develop into further stories. She has been hard at work developing her latest feature film project aimed for the international market.

Currently I’m in pre-production on a Japan/Spain international co-produced feature project called Performing Kaoru’s Funeral which I’m directing and producing. At the beginning, a crowdfunding campaign was going to start in the fall of 2020 with an American executive producer, but due to the pandemic the US producer bowed out and the start of filming had to be postponed as well. Then, the situation turned equally difficult and life-threatening all over the world.

The fact is the setback we suffered was really significant, but we were able to find a new Spanish crew and many supporters for our project’s primary subject matter of a “funeral service”.

Rather than “change” since it’s a “post-COVID world”, it feels more like this awareness I’ve always had that “I have to change” was confirmed. One of the themes the feature-length I’m currently developing will depict is what the “family” should be. I want to portray in my own way this smallest entity in living a social life.

People absolutely can’t exist alone, but without exception die on their own. I continue to draw those people anchored around the way that a “family” functions because I feel that’s what living is. Yet it could also be said I’ve avoided dealing with this straight on up to now, but I firmly believe the existence of this coronavirus is without question making me take on a tremendous challenge.

In the post-COVID world, you have to become more attuned to the ridiculous and absurd things that come from yourself.

Moriya Fumio
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Shimoeda is a producer, production coordinator, and PR agent who has been involved with local independent movies such as Rolling and Dynamite Soul Bambi as well as international productions such as Under the Turquoise Sky starring Yagira Yuya. She is Yuasa Noriko’s producing partner on Performing Kaori’s Funeral.

The scheduled 2020 release of a joint Japan/France/Mongolia production was delayed, but it finally opened in the latter half of February, 2021. We’re currently in pre-production on a Japan/Spain co-production after the American producer who had been attached to it bowed out due to the high number of COVID-19 cases in America. The project has been restarted with new duties and a reorganized team. While it was being developed, we couldn’t do things face-to-face or travel as we desired, but we held online meetings with people around the world. A few factors such as distance, time, and capital that were issues in offline endeavors didn’t really change, instead the world became much closer, providing us opportunities for a variety of campaigns.

One break we got amid the crisis has been the ongoing opportunities we’ve had to circulate or broadcast [information] about our project, and to periodically talk about it in our own words. One positive affect is that we’ve established a new communication infrastructure that connects us to the world post-COVID.

I don’t think filmmaking will essentially change. I’ve been tackling a number of new things since before COVID-19. In each case I wanted to think about and find suitable filmmaking methods for the individual projects and their quality. Nothing has essentially changed about what I want to make. But from time to time, I want to make something that touches the heart.

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Beginning his career in “pink films”, Moriya works in multiple capacities in the film industry. He has written the screenplays for Underwater Love and The Woodsman and the Rain and also appears in front of the camera as an actor such as his own feature directorial debut Manga-jima: The Island of Cartoon which he also wrote. The film riffs ‘Lord of the Flies’ for its take on the adage “publish or perish” in portraying artists suffering for their art. His latest feature A Girl Under a Tree is an entirely unique experience better seen than explained.

My movie A Girl Under A Tree began its theatrical run on the 4th of April (2020), but upon the announcement of a state of emergency by the Tokyo metropolitan government, movie theaters were forced to close and halted screenings after April 7th. A little less than two months later, screenings resumed on June 1st. Thereafter, it screened at theaters here and there around the country until the end of 2020. However, from the perspective of preventing the spread of COVID-19, practically every screening was at theaters reduced to half capacity.

There were four screenings in all at the time of release from April 4th to the 7th, but since it was unknown when theaters would open back up again, patrons rushed to those four screenings and almost packed a full house each time. The audience’s excitement was shared and spread on social media resulting in additional screenings being added after theaters began showing movies again in June. Looking back on the timing of the movie’s release, it was the worst. Because of that, however, I became strongly conscious of the passion of people who want to see a movie no matter what, and that a movie is first born upon passing it on to the audience through the intermediary of a movie theater and they take possession of it.

To be honest, I didn’t know how to best answer this question, but after thinking about it for a few days I came up with a concept for a movie I want to shoot before I die. That concept was something that previously popped into my head, even long before the pandemic happened, but I put it away because it was so ridiculously absurd. As I write this, I recall writing the same phrase on the treatment for A Girl Under A Tree. I had set it aside for a week from the time I conceived it until I began writing since it, too, was so preposterous.

The pandemic has made me aware that time is limited. This may have to do with my age, but beyond that, even though I may be fine today I can’t say I will be tomorrow. I can’t be sure I’ll be alive a week from now. This isn’t some kind of “maybe” talk. If I’m infected with COVID-19, it’ll genuinely bear down on me as a process of the first hand changes occurring in my own body. In other words, the pandemic has forced me to be aware of the fact I’ll certainly die one day, and even if there wasn’t a pandemic, I’m still going to die eventually. If that’s the case, I have to figure out the things I should do, the movies I should make, and devote as much time as possible on them. This has turned out to be a question that should be thought about properly and puts into perspective the time you have left in life kind of like a fun questionnaire question about what if you could shoot just one more movie in your life. Actually, no, this isn’t anything so lofty. Instead, when I wanted to think about how to answer your question I unexpectedly remembered a crazy idea I’d forgotten about for a long time, and I think I should just do it no matter what. It might be difficult, but I feel compelled to shoot it simply, and I should act according to this feeling.

In the post-COVID world, you have to become more attuned to the ridiculous and absurd things that come from yourself. I realize such things are precisely the movies I should make and must devote time to pulling off. I think my filmmaking will gradually change in this way. And the story that can be found in such a manner, regardless if there’s a pandemic or not, probably already exists within or around me.

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Jo Motoyo is a rising, trilingual visual artist who has been working on ad campaigns for Japan-based agency TOKYO since 2015 and has been slowly gaining attention as an influential creator. Her short Midnight won the Short Film Silver award at Young Director Award 2019, a part of Cannes Lions, and Adfest 2019’s Fabulous Five Popular Vote. She is set to direct her debut feature after winning the Tsutaya Creators’ Award 2019 Special Jury Prize for her project Yongqing’s Diary (working title), a story of a young Taiwanese girl, Yongqing, who has been keeping a diary since her mother left her and disappeared.

Between April and June 2020, the majority of production in Japan came to a standstill due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While this certainly brought up worries about the future, I tried to also take it as an opportunity to make positive changes in my life. I was able to take time out to reevaluate and reshape my every day and have been keeping to this new lifestyle ever since.

Now that we have been fortunate enough to have productions starting up again, we have been able to return to an almost normal – a new normal. Of course, we have to follow many more precautions, including fewer crew members on sets and regular alcohol cleaning and health checks, which impacts the production crew heavily as they have to go through more steps to prepare for shoots.

I think it has certainly been a struggle for many in production to become accustomed to the new way of working, with increased online meetings for example. But, I feel like it could lead to a more balanced and flexible way of working and a more comfortable working environment. While it is a real shame that we are unable to meet clients from abroad during these times, the possibility of remote shooting has allowed us to connect digitally with more people and broaden our collaborations further afield.

I think that everyone in the world sharing the same experience and experiencing the same hardship all at the same time has brought us together with an even stronger sense of unity, regardless of race, language and national borders.

While this is something we will never forget, I do believe that the pandemic will gradually become a transient event preserved only in memory and there will be a time when everyone is able to get back to their normal lives. And so, I don’t believe that it has changed our core and foundations as humans, and my own as a creator. Rather, it has been a time for everyone to think deeper about the core values of human beings, our lives, how we connect with and love others. It has made me want to dig deeper into the essence of human beings and continue to create works that people respond to and can empathize with, regardless of language or gender.

Though most if not all of the filmmakers featured in this article did not escape some form of hardship due to the pandemic, just as the film industry as a whole, it is also apparent the impact of the pandemic has done little to curb their enthusiasm for telling stories. Filmmakers are observers whose works reflect the present state of the world at large or the world immediately around them. The state of the world under COVID-19 has provided them ample material to turn into fictional and non-fictional works that will continue provoking thought, inciting discussion, and inspiring hope in the “new normal” world, whatever that may be.

Special thank you to Fujimura Akiyo for her invaluable role in suggesting, and contacting Hayakawa Chie, Kawasaki Ryo, Tsukada Marina, and Jo Motoyo. Their participation in this article is directly attributable to her effort.

Kato Yoshio photograph by Dick Thomas Johnson.
Feature photographs by Jared Murray (pt.1) and Mason Kimbarovsky (pt 2.) via Unsplash.
All other photos are copyright of their respective owners.

Of course, thank you to all the participating filmmakers for their thoughtful insights into a year that posed challenges on a personal and professional level.