Category: Japan

Leaving Yamagata

16th October 2009

I am now leaving Yamagata with 2 awards; the Special Jury Prize for ‘amazing access in an entertaining way’, and the Citizens’ Award, the latter being a gift from the people of Yamagata who voted our film to be their favourite of the festival. Very touching.

The whole experience has been nerve-racking, I never knew how the Japanese would see the film but they laughed and were moved at all right points, some felt I made some sweeping generalisations in my commentary which I guess was true.

But I leave Naoki and Yoshie as local heroes, or is it anti-heroes? Naoki went to see his doctor today who congratulated him on the film, and added that he never knew he was living with Yoshie who also happens to be a patient of his. People stopping and staring shaking Naoki’s hand is a far cry from the man I found hiding from the world 4 years ago, Yoshie worries a little for the future and doesn’t want me to disappear and forget them, but tonight at work she expects to find more new customers coming to meet the local woman from the film.

I feel sad to leave Yamagata as this chapter in my life closes and a new one awaits me in the Middle East, but I don’t feel like I’m leaving Naoki and Yoshie behind, they are coming with me, an inspiration for making more films and many more friends in the future.

17th october 2009

It was great to hang-out once again in Yamagata with Naoki and Yoshie, to cook veggie food round at their place, each day I indulged in my favourite tofu dressed in a gorgeous sesame sauce. It is the one Japanese dish I will always miss.

And now I am cooking a tofu omelette breakfast for Atsushi and Mako in Tokyo on my way home, they both helped me through this bumpy sometimes very difficult 4 year project. And before I fly back to England I will give a talk at the University where my good friend Toshiko works, Toshiko has been a strong supporter of me also… Oh dear there are so many people I have troubled whilst making this film, so many people who have tried keep my spirits high when I faced some of the darkest loneliest moments of my life lost in Japan. To be with them all again, celebrating the awards for a successful film is truly wonderful and almost worth the pain. As I ‘joked’ when I picked up the first award ‘It makes me almost love Japan… But not quite’.

It is funny to be sat with Atsushi, my Japanese ‘film-school’ friend who has helped me immensely since I started my difficult journey here in Tokyo all those years ago. At times he could see no point and would tell me to give up and go home, “You will never find what you are looking for here Sean, go home”, he would say, “Stop killing yourself”. So it is such a pleasure to be sat with him 4 years on sitting next to my two trophies, having a quiet drink. I remember being here in the very same seat many many times whilst I was lost dazed and confused.

And finally, I am so happy we had a post-screening party for Naoki and his co-workers from the post-office in Yamagata. They never understood my filming at the time but at the party they were full of praise, and I’m pleased we also bumped into mushroom man, he pulled-up on his post-office bike whilst on his delivery route, I love his smile, it reminds me so much of Naoki.

Return to Yamagata

My return to Japan is an anxious semi-excited occasion since I heard I was in competition at the Yamagata Documentary Festival. It was great to arrive here in luxury; I think the only way to do Japan is to make sure someone else is paying. I slipped through the curtain from my premium economy seat to the cocktail bar in upper class, the Japanese girl serving said “I recognise you”. “You made that film about Naoki! It was great but very negative on Japan.”

I wondered if this was how Naoki’s home-town was going to receive the film at the weekend, we have 2 big screenings – a 650 seater and a 1200 one. The only Japanese film in the competition (and filmed entirely in Yamagata), ‘Japan: A Story of Love and Hate’ is getting massive media attention, my friend Mr Matsui gave me last night’s local paper featuring an article on my film, and yesterday I was interview on NHK World TV about my time in Japan and the film.

It’s all a long way from the struggle of making it and my own love hate relationship with this distant difficult island. ‘No matter how long you look into the eyes of the Japanese you will never know what they are thinking’, a great quote that stays with me as I stare hard into the eyes of a nation I thought I’d come to really understand whilst making my film here. But the truth is that I don’t feel I really know this place at all, after a couple of days here again I’m thinking I only scratched surface.

I can’t wait to look into the eyes of 1200 Japanese as they watch my film in Yamagata. Shock outrage or calm considered thought. I wonder, will I know what the Japanese are really thinking?

We played to 600 people yesterday which was nerve racking for me and for Naoki. Yamagata is Naoki’s home-town, they asked how he felt having exposed himself so naked in the film he said ‘relieved’, I suggested more people do it in Japan as a joke but they didn’t get it, though I was surprised that they enjoyed the humour in the film especially the Viagra section. I am almost enjoying being back in Japan… Has my hate turned to love? Not quite. Today is the big screening in the 1200 seat cinema. It’s so great to see Yoshie enjoying the limelight almost more then Naoki.

Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival 2009
October 8 – 15

Oliver Twist in Japan

I was out looking for the luxurious hotel where Lost in Translation was shot. I wanted to re create that scene in the panoramic bar with me staring over a beer into the midnight sky, staring into space. Outer ‘Space’.

This is my Japan. I said to a friend the other week despairingly, “Being in Japan is like living on the moon. Japan is my new prison”. We walked amidst the luxurious hotels that towered above us, but I was still moaning, “I hate Japan”. I declared to my patient Japanese friend.

In the distance I saw a queue of homeless people; I mean hundreds of them standing in lines of three shamelessly outside The Crown Plaza Hyatt Hotel. I had to go look closer. Bowls of rice were being handed out at one of Japans many soup kitchens. I watched the faces of the poor old men and women who come begging for food. None of them drunk, all of them dignified and grateful to the 20 odd volunteers who were serving up the bowls of rice.

Each line of three people would emerge take a bowl of rice and bow thanking the volunteers. They would move away and eat as the next three dark dirty faces emerge. It was Oliver Twist in Japan. I felt sad, sad for these people and the country that they’ve all worked so hard to build, a country which after economic recession provided no safety net for them as they fell from grace and onto the streets. Many of them lost their jobs after the economic crash in the early 1990’s. They rely on day-work for £35 a day if they are lucky.

Later I traveled around Shinjuku Park visiting the many makeshift homes with the volunteers. Tokyo city council is finding apartments for the homeless now. It is officially estimated that there are 25,000 of them in Japan, although the real figure is expected to be twice that. Many of the homeless feel free of the pressure of being in the rat race. Some described their life in tents in parks as ‘free’. Free is my favourite word in Japan. I think about it everyday as I watch this machine-like society plough ahead; where to? No one really knows or seemingly stops to think.

Later I find myself in a panoramic bar having a beer and a plate of chips. I am lost in my translation staring into the ‘space’ that is my new prison, that is my Japan. From the panoramic window I notice the empty spot where the soup kitchen and hundreds of homeless once were. Now it is vacant, they too have all disappeared into space.

My Kind of Man

So here I am back in my Tokyo hotel now fully-commissioned for a feature-length documentary co-production between BBC2 and NHK. It is a great opportunity to make a film of my choice with no brief.

But Japan presents my biggest challenge so far in making a film that gets under the skin of what is going on. This closed society is hard to crack, on my last trip 8 months ago I left never wanting to come back. But since then I have recharged my batteries and have been introduced to a character called Naoki who lives in Yamagata about 3 hours out of Tokyo.

Married 3 times, divorced 3 times he ran a bar called ‘Night Dew’ named after a famous shampoo brand here but after getting into a fight the former communist found himself in hospital for 3 months. His bar closed and now he rides a Honda 90cc everyday for the post office dreaming of re-opening his Night Dew bar. He lives with a woman half his age that used to drink at the bar. Naoki sounds like my kind of man.