Tag: Tokyo

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.

The Beauty Box in Starbucks

Tokyo was heaving with people. I was tired of all the pushing and shoving. I was late for a meeting with Ryota the producer at NHK television here in Japan. I finally made it to Starbucks where I was meeting him and I joined a long queue for coffee.

I hate the idea of supporting Starbucks but I love the coffee, especially here in Japan. Something about being in this bland place takes me out of Japan. I really need to leave sometimes, it gets so intense. Sometimes I find myself frustrated with the crowds, and worse still the noise from huge screens that invade my privacy with garbage adverts… and then young girls pushing free tissues wrapped in more advertisements… there is no escape. At these times I look up to the sky for the peace I know I can rely on in one of the many beautiful panoramic bars on the 50th floor of a hotel. I glide up, leaving it all behind and look down on it, like a god in the sky sipping on a gin and tonic. Pure bliss.

But today I’m standing in a Starbucks queue. I get myself a latte head up stairs looking for a seat. There is nothing on the first floor and before I know it I’m on the 5th floor, out of breath with half my coffee down my shirt. I find what looks like a vacant seat but there is a beauty box on it and a stroppy looking Japanese woman in her early 20`s guarding it. She is filing another girls nails. I move over indicating I need the seat, I am out of breath, with a heavy bag on one arm and coffee all over me.

The woman looks shocked by my intervention and indicates that the chair is not free. “What?” I scream. The woman looks away and carries on filing her friend’s nails. I look around for support but in this country of non-confrontation everyone else ignores the scene. I look over to a western gaijin (foreigner) guy sat at the next table. He has observed the scene, smiling he pulls off his walkman and shuffles up on his seat to invites me to sit with him. I’m still in shock. He is smiling; I sit with him, “what was that all about..? He smiles, “this is Japan mate, don’t even start to question why!”

Later Ryota arrives. He squeezes on our seat, there are now 3 of us crammed into this tight space as the woman continues filing her friends nails. We are all looking at the box on the chair but no one will confront the woman. I continue cursing her. Ryota tries making sense of the scene explaining that when the Japanese sit at a table they see all the chairs at it as their possession.

I’m exchanging angry stares with the woman. Finally she gets up and leaves…

Suddenly the manager is at our table demanding that we apologize to the woman who has complained about my cursing.

“Why… why…..why?” I ask, at which point the gaigin (foreigner) starts to laugh, gets up and leaves.


Another Adventure

Another 12 hour flight seems about right to set me off on another film adventure. It’s almost 2 years to the day that I set off to Baghdad taking that dangerous unknown road.

But the results have been rewarding, the film The Liberace of Baghdad won several international awards including Special Jury Prize at Sundance, in Chicago and San Paolo and Best Documentary Award at the British Independent Film Awards. Such accolades haven’t helped sales though! – having re-mortgaged my house to make the film I’m still waiting for the film to sell one year on.

I always need time and space before moving onto a new film. For me the experience is all-encompassing and this can drive you crazy. If indeed you are not already crazy. Something I question more and more as I grow older and more stupid. My last film took me to Iraq for 8 months at its most dangerous watching friends being killed and kidnapped around me.

In many ways I feel I have been trying to overcome this. The unpredictable situation that developed around me, the dangers, the deaths and the kidnappings remain vivid in my mind as I think back to my time in Iraq. I wake up in cold sweats looking back at different things of could have been, I think of friends killed 28 year old Marla a passionate aid worker and others kidnapped.

Then I get positive and think it is time to move on!! To open a new chapter in my life, to try and close this last one. It is time to make a new film. I decide on Japan, why? Well because for me it has very interesting issues of freedom and reminds me oddly enough of Saddam’s Iraq. Just in terms of how people are told to think and operate out of loyalty.

So here I am two years on heading over to Japan. After making a film in the worlds most dangerous place I’m heading to the worlds safest. As I leave I see on the TV news the face of a friend staring out at me. It seems no matter how hard I try Iraq will not let me go. It haunts me day by day. I’m sat looking at the innocent face of a trainee journalist I knew in Iraq, Jill Carol 28, kidnapped and threatened with death if all female Iraqi prisoners are not released from jail.

Her interpreter was thrown out of her car and shot in the head leaving a 4-year-old without a father. It seems some stories will never go away. For 4 months last year I tuned into the news each night fearing the worst for another friend George. He was released after 4 months and only because he was French. Carol happens to be American.

The road to Tokyo

I’m sat in the limousine bus from Narita International airport to central Tokyo with a nervous excitement in my stomach. I’ve spent most of last year doing the festival circuit with ‘Liberace of Baghdad’ and now it is time to embark on another adventure. As a place to film; Japan is not without its difficulties, traditionally one of the most secretive and private societies where very few people speak English. I’d heard of the growth in English language schools and wondered why? When I looked further into it, it seemed many Japanese were learning English out of a growth in leisure and ‘freedom’ rather need for work or travel. The English school provided me with an opportunity to meet English speaking subjects for a film. I’d heard stories about the ‘housewives’ who would learn English in their afternoon breaks. They’d often not tell their husbands and would have secret fantasies for the English teacher. It only seemed sensible for someone like me to come as film maker/ English teacher to look at modern Japanese using the English school as a vehicle to freedom.

Snowmans Welcome

I meet my friend Atsushi at the 246 café near my hotel. It’s a very western café, with a faint smell of fish. But even that disturbs me, fortunately there are loads of people smoking and it kills the smell. Smoking inside? Seems rather liberal in Japan. And women smoking everywhere I look, probably more then men.

This super clean environment is smoke filled. Why? We sit and wait for two café latte’s I watch the array of beautiful women serving us. It is difficult to concentrate here with such beautiful women. I notice Atsushi seeing that I’m now ignoring him. He understands and gives up the conversation for just enough time for me look at little longer… Beautiful… apart from the smoke and that faint fishy smell. Then our coffees arrive. It is extra creamy, a latte like never before. And on top is a snowman designed specially for me by the coffee maker. I look over to Atsushi’s coffee there is no snowman. I smile, waft passing smoke away from my face blown by a gorgeous girl next to us and then I sip the coffee. It tastes better than most – I have another sip – in fact it is amazing coffee. I look down at the menu and worry about my vegetarian diet. How on earth am I going to cope here? But now I’m just enjoying the coffee, I take another sip. This is better than Italy I think to myself.

This is my first education on arriving in Japan; you can get everything you want here, and it will always taste better than anywhere you’ve ever tried before! The Japanese get lots wrong but rarely is it ever food.