Featured, Interview

Art of Persistence

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For many, movies are manufactured reality, a stylized representation of it even if based on factual events. True situations are the purview of documentaries. However, the filmmakers at Supersaurus, producer, Ochiai Atsuko (pictured), and director, Sakaguchi Katsumi, have pursued an unconventional authenticity in their storytelling which have not so much blurred the line between fiction and non-fiction, but warped their defining spheres.

Established in 1999, Supersaurus–named after the giant sauropod in reference to their desire to plod on making movies until their extinction–has released only six movies in their 18 year history. Each dealing with human dilemmas, their filmography serve as both snapshots of people’s lives, and also mnemonics of the best and worst qualities of humanity. They accomplish this by employing a kind of home movie immediacy, no doubt a function of their small, independent budgets as well as Sakaguchi’s background as a director of over 100 television documentary news programs. His camerawork is intimate, yet never overly “cinematic.” The cast are usually relative unknowns or first time actors, but with intimate understanding of the subject matter. For example, in Blue Tower, a story about social shut-ins, Nakamura Yusuke was an actual social shut-in prior to being cast in the lead. Furthermore, Sakaguchi draws upon real life experiences for inspiration, some his own. 2011’s Sleep was made in response to familial hardships, while 2015’s Walking with My Mother is literally his most personal movie. Sakaguchi doesn’t shy away from utilizing catharsis to showcase uncomfortably honest, if not identifiable, material. Ochiai is actually the key to wrangling such unidealized narratives. Holding a degree in law, she produces all of their features, and is involved in finessing the scripts, overseeing the edits, co-developing projects with Sakaguchi, and handling all support logistics. Her ying to Sakaguchi’s yang is the crucial counterbalance that keeps Supersaurus’ movies from tipping over to sentimental sermons.

Of course, the reality of producing works which defy straightforward categorization, particularly in the present state of independent cinema in Japan, means both Sakaguchi and Ochiai must juggle self-supporting jobs while also funding their movies. Fortunately, they have consistently been able to work around their budget constraints without compromising their movies’ impact. One can only imagine what they could accomplish with better funding. For now, however, they plod along as their namesake, rare filmmakers committed to shedding light on the human condition until time or means expire.

(Editor’s Note: This interview was originally conducted in 2013. Revisions have been made with the filmmaker’s supervision)

What was the impetus for the partnership with director Sakaguchi Katsumi? Did you meet while becoming involved with TV documentaries as a university student?

Ochiai: Yes, it all began during my university days when I took part in the production of a television documentary program on which Sakaguchi was the director. Afterward, as we jointly produced television programs, we were faced with the fundamental question of what was it that we truly wanted to do? The answer was to carry out our own productions, and as the foundation for this, we established our production company Supersaurus. The supersaurus was the earth’s largest herbivore. Like this dinosaur which continued to eat vegetation until its extinction, we made it our goal to feed on our dream and keep making movies until the very end.

As a producer, your role in a two-person production company must mean you wear many hats. How involved are you with the script, shooting, and editing?

Ochiai: With regards to our movies, I work together with Sakaguchi on everything. From the planning to the script, filming, casting, editing, post-production, and on through release I perform all [duties] related to the film through a unified effort with Sakaguchi.
Usually, the movie’s theme/subject matter is formulated by Sakaguchi and during discussions with me, a scenario is born. He proposes what kinds of movies to make and from among those we deliberate priorities: what we realistically are capable of making presently, and what kind of movie should we make at the moment before settling on one. Then he writes the script which I read and offer comments. After several revisions, the script is completed. I’m also present all through pre-production and on-site filming. Since our third movie, Sakaguchi has been simultaneously operating the camera while he directs, and with our production centered on a small number of people, obtaining permits, assuring the cast & staff’s welfare, arranging for necessities, managing the schedule, etc. are all my responsibility. Editing is also conducted together with Sakaguchi.
Though he oversees the direction and I oversee the production, we jointly perform both duties reciprocally. I believe that our filmmaking must be linked by offering mutual opinions and collaborating though our viewpoints as two people dissimilar in age, gender, and other factors.

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Maezawa Misa and Nakamura Yusuke in Blue Tower / ©Supersaurus

Supersaurus’ debut films, Blue Tower and Catharsis have played at festivals abroad not to mention winning an award, how did it feel to receive such attention so early?

Ochiai: Blue Tower was our very first movie. Thanks to its heartwarming story of a young man taking his first steps toward self-reliance, we were overjoyed that it was screened at various film festivals and seen in many places. With our debut work, we came in direct contact with the world’s audiences through film festivals. Their deeply moved comments and applause gave us the courage and power to keep making movies thereafter, as well as making us aware of a great many [things].
On the other hand, Catharsis received an invitation from a well-established European film festival even though we had received an announcement from a larger scale film festival–the deadline for which was exactly the same–stating [Catharsis] was in the running of their screening process. Because of this, we made the agonizing decision to turn down the invitation, but in the end, Catharsis did not get selected [to the larger film festival.] In terms of the result, this was a regrettable decision. I really think deciding which film festival to screen at is difficult because the “fate” of the movie also changes afterward. Be that as it may, [Catharsis] was invited to a few festivals later on, and we met new people which led to a screening in Germany among others.

Probably the greatest form of revenge is declaring the intent to take vengence and just stop short of carrying it out

Sleep, your third narrative feature world premiered at the prestigious Rotterdam International Film Festival. What was that experience like?

Sakaguchi: I would say it was both positive and negative. With the added signficance of raising my own spirit from the heartbreak of caring for both my younger sister and father in succession, I strived to depict the despair and rejuvenation of sexual assault victims–the women in the toughest situation in Japan–whom I met through television documentary interviews. There were people who wanted to avert their eyes from the mentally and physically distressing visuals, but the majority were able to accept it sympathetically.

The plot’s foundation is fundamentally a “revenge film,” yet avoids that genre’s usual conventions. In fact, the movie is quite unconventional. Why did you avoid the violence and anti-heroism associated with “revenge” stories?

Sakaguchi: Probably the greatest [form of] revenge is declaring the intent to take vengence and just stop short of carrying it out. Furthermore, the most brutal revenge is for the family and those closest to the one deserving of retribution to learn the truth justifying it. A soul claimed by violence can not be regained by violence. That’s why I think becoming aware that retribution is coming, but not receiving it makes for a more profound [kind of] suffering.

Reviews of Sleep often mentioned how the warmth of the family dynamic elevated the film and made a lasting impression despite the story’s very grim situation. How important was the casting in order to convey that close familial bond?

Sakaguchi: Casting is incredibly important. Because of the theme’s austere subject matter and the difficult location shoot planned for the production, only actors who empathized with the work, were emotionally tough, and intensely yearned for this story could play [the parts]. Every one of these actors I had met in auditions were each essential to this story. As we filmed, it felt as if a natural and powerful–almost familial–empathy and solidarity was forming [among them]. Or maybe in order to get through the harsh location shoots, they united to help one another.

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Residents at the Mercy Hill Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Home / ©Supersaurus

Even with the reception of the above mentioned movies, Atomic Bomb Home, Supersaurus’ first feature-length documentary has had few festival screenings both at home and abroad. Has this been frustrating?

Ochiai: With regards to film festivals, Atomic Bomb Home has been screened at international film festivals that have made nuclear issues a theme, but unfortunately beyond those, I can’t say the results are better. By putting the focus on the atomic bomb, I have heard that one reaction abroad would be: “Japan always takes the stance of the victim.” Whether or not that’s true I do not know, but the response has been extremely faint and it’s a shame the opportunities for screenings at film festivals similar to our previous three movies have been [comparatively] few. Because I’m Japanese and I’m a filmmaker, I believe Hiroshima and Nagasaki are subjects which cannot be ignored. From here on, I will continue making every effort to have the movie seen abroad as well.

The documentary was shot at a special care home for survivors of the atomic bombings in which cameras are rarely granted access. How did you and the director obtain permission to shoot for such an extended length of time?

Ochiai: This was the first time the Mercy Hill Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Home had granted permission for prolonged filming there. I believe the home secretly had held hope for a chance to communicate with the outside world rather than any result from our efforts. Year after year, the atomic bomb survivors are advancing in age and passing away. It might be safe to assume the home wishes to preserve their image and thoughts for all time and relay them to [people] at home and abroad.

Walking with My Mother, your second full-length documentary, is the result of footage documenting your mother over the course of four years. Due to the personal nature of the movie, was the editing phase particularly difficult, or perhaps painful?

Sakaguchi: It wasn’t particularly difficult. In fact, everyone was surprised by the edit. They said I had nicely got it down to 93 minutes despite four years of footage, but I had already determined the maximum length prior to editing so as to avoid being redundant or verbose. And what I had to caution myself against was becoming emotional. Now that I had turned the camera on my own mother, I had to be level-headed in the editing also, and unrestrainedly attack the footage in order to avoid doling out sentiment.

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Ochiai Atsuko and Sakaguchi Katsumi (r) at the 2014 Tokyo International Film Festival / ©Supersaurus

What were you feeling when the movie world premired at the 2014 Tokyo International Film Festival? How did the audience react to it?

Sakaguchi: It was a curious feeling. I didn’t set out to shoot a movie, instead I began filming my emotionally distraught mother as a way to snip off the seed of violence attempting to sprout within me. Over the many months and years of being face-to-face with my grieving mother, those violent feelings at some point turned to love and an affection for my mother via the camera. When I saw this on the screen along with an audience, I got a sense of the wondrousness of this thing called cinema, and a small hint of the limitless expressive possibilities movies possess.

When I saw this on the screen along with an audience, I got a sense of the wondrousness of this thing called cinema, and a small hint of the limitless expressive possibilities movies possess.

Ochiai: Back in 2008, when Sakaguchi moved from Tokyo to Saitama (Prefecture) to live with his aging parents, I could never have dreamed seven years later Sakaguchi would shoot a movie about his mother. He had avoided making movies about family, but his turning the camera on to his mother was something he couldn’t help doing. He felt compelled. What he had captured was the portrait of an elderly couple who, riding the wave of the post-war economic boom, moved from their hometown to Tokyo and before long reached the later years of their life. Yet, it’s also a universal image of who we are as Japanese.
Walking with My Mother captures not only the sadness of growing old, but also its majesty and beauty. I once again experienced this firsthand following the world premiere through the audience members’ applause and the air of enthusiasm in the theater.

A Dance for Blue Whales was inspired by the March 11, 2011 earthquake. What is it about?

Sakaguchi: The movie was shot after the Great East Japan Earthquake, but the subject matter is not a direct depiction of it. Even without a natural phenomenon like a giant tidal wave, the experience of one day suddenly losing someone close is not uncommon. In life, whether expected or not, everyone experiences it. At that moment grief is born. How people go on living afterward with that grief is the theme [we] settled on.
The protagonists are two young sisters aged 9 and 11. The story begins several years after a catastrophic, giant, tidal wave as the sisters return to a village buried under sand. There, they reunite with their deceased family—father, mother, younger sister, grandparents—and look upon days long gone by around the vicinity of their family’s entombed home. This is the story of the two sisters digging up the sand, gathering the fragments of their family’s memories, and making a new “home” out of driftwood and other materials in an attempt to survive once again. Life & death, the present & past intermingle within an act of Mother Nature. The sisters then obtain something unquestionably valuable as they experience a dream beyond reality during those several days. What they find is something like a cord which is important for the sisters’ life, tying the two together while at the same time binding them with their deceased family and their buried home. As long at they do not lose that cord, the two can return to that nostalgic place anytime.

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Matsushita Haruna and Okubo Hiori in A Dance for Blue Whales / ©Supersaurus

You had a project which was featured at international project markets, how is it progressing? What will be your next movie?

Sakaguchi: Thanks to UNIJAPAN, which organizes the Tokyo International Film Festival as well as carrying out support programs for the international expansion of Japanese movies and visual properties, Eternal Forest was, at the time, the first Asian project to be officially selected to the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival’s European Film Market. We thought to ask Russian cinematographer Vadim Yusov, cinematographer on Andrei Tarkovski’s Ivan’s Childhood, Solaris, Andrei Rublev, etc., to be our cinematographer and upon reading a Russian translation of the script, he agreed. Producer Ochiai Atsuko and I proceeded to Moscow in order to meet with Mr. Yusov.
He was looking forward to going to Japan, and said, “This is a movie about the power of the forest.” But our dream of making a movie with him ended as a dream. While we wrestled with the difficulties of raising funds in Japan, we learned of Mr. Yusov’s passing on August 23, 2013.
Filming of the project was suspended with his death, but once prepartions are in order we are planning to shoot this project as our next movie over the course of this year and next. I can’t hope for the same production plan from that time, but since then I have shot and directed Sleep, Atomic Bomb Home, Walking with My Mother, and two more movies currently being edited. Using that experience, it’s my desire to also serve as the cinematographer of Eternal Forest, low-budget notwithstanding.
The notion behind the story in Catharsis was to have the perpetrator find the victim within. However, Eternal Forest will be a story in which the perpetrator and the victim will confront one another head on over a crime.

To conclude, this final question is asked of every interviewee. If you could send a maximum 15 character message to yourself 5 years in the future, what would it say?

I hope you haven’t grown tired of making movies ….maybe.

Excerpted from a full interview to be published in curated eBooks which will be offered for sale sometime in the near future. Please bookmark the Indievisual blog, Backstory, for news when the eBooks are available for purchase.

Filmography

2000 – Blue Tower
2002 – Catharsis
2011 – Atomic Bomb Home (documentary)
2014 – Walking with My Mother (documentary – available on Vimeo On Demand)
2014 – A Dance for Blue Whales (available on Vimeo On Demand)

Supersaurus currently has two new movies slated for release in 2017. The filmography above will be updated when these are released and information for each movie detailed on the Indievisual Facebook and/or the Caught Our Eye section.