When young creators answer the big city’s siren call

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Veteran scriptwriter and director Toshiyuki Morioka had more than a professional interest in making his new film “Jokyo Monogatari.” Based on an autobiographical manga by Rieko Saibara, its story of an aspiring artist coming to Tokyo to learn her trade and make her fortune was his as well.

“I was in the same situation 30 years ago, so I felt that the comic’s story and mine overlapped,” the Osaka native tells The Japan Times at the Yoyogi office of Phantom Film, the movie’s distributor. Like the heroine, Morioka “worked part-time jobs while I followed my dream.”

Morioka’s first dream was to act, but in 1993 he founded the Straydog theater company, with which he is still associated. In 1995 he earned his first scriptwriting credit with “Shin Kanashiki Hitman (Another Lonely Hitman),” Rokuro Mochizuki’s action-drama about a gangster’s difficult transition from prison to freedom. The film won a shelf-full of awards and Morioka was soon churning out scripts for yakuza actioners that boosted the international reputations of not only Mochizuki, but also Takashi Miike and Shinji Aoyama.

In 2000, Morioka made his directorial debut with “Kurayami no Requiem (Requiem of Darkness),” a homage to the 1948 Akira Kurosawa classic “Yoidore Tenshi (Drunken Angel)” that started him on another busy career as a director of TV dramas and films.

In 2009, Morioka scripted and directed “Onnanoko Monogatari (Your Story),” a film based on a Saibara manga about her childhood and her early dreams of becoming a comic artist.

“I really wanted to make ‘Jokyo Monogatari’ first, but when I went to (the manga’s publisher), Shogakukan, I was told that someone else wanted to do it, so I gave up and did ‘Your Story’ instead,” he explains.

When Morioka finally got a chance to direct a “Jokyo Monogatari” film several years later, he “wanted to make something truly realistic,” he says. “I had to hide the erotic parts (of Saibara’s story) in ‘Your Story,’ but I wanted to include them in the new film. In fact, I overdid it a bit,” he adds with a laugh.

Morioka’s script, with a cameo for Saibara as a cleaning lady (“She insisted on it as a condition for making the film”), takes its dialogue almost entirely from the comic, if not in the order or manner in which Saibara wrote it. “I added two lines,” Morioka says. “Natsumi (the heroine) asks Ryosuke (her boyfriend-to-be) if he has anything to say for himself. His answer is, ‘Lend me some money.’ That was my contribution.”

Morioka, however, changed the story after up-and-coming young actress Kie Kitano was cast as the lead. “She struck me as a pulled-together type, but I wanted to bring out a different side of her,” he says. “I wanted to show her peeking (at her next-door neighbor’s sexual antics), or looking at a statue of a naked David. That is, give her character some new colors and make her more of a life-sized girl.”

While being full of weaknesses, Kitano’s Natsumi is also like her model, the successful Saibara, in “falling seven times, but getting up eight,” Morioka comments. “But she’s really rolling, not falling.” Her ups and downs, he confesses, had a recent parallel in his own life: “Before making this film, I was taken off a TV drama,” he says. “That is, someone else was asked to write the script and the TV network axed me. But I’ve kept rolling and rolling, from the theater to films. Whether I’ve developed and changed, though, I don’t know.”

Also similar to his and Saibara’s own lives, he notes, is the way Natsumi plugs along, even though she ranks at the bottom of her art class and is derided as untalented by prospective employers.

“One thing I tell students in actors’ workshops is that talent is the last thing that they can display,” he says. What they need first, he believes, is the physical strength to do the work. “By that I mean they shouldn’t shy away or slack off,” he says. Second is personality. “They should be someone you enjoy working with,” he explains. “Then comes number three and four — and talent comes fifth.

“Ultimately, you have to be someone people want to support. Then people will buy what you have to sell, be it a play or a manga. Saibara was able to sell her crappy drawings because of that,” he says with a smile. “Even I can do those drawings of hers.”

More than anything, he believes, the Natsumis of this world need “the guts to get out there and mix it up.” “When I was teaching at Tokyo Designer Gakuin College, I felt the students were all waiting, they were all passive,” he says. “That is, they were waiting for someone to discover their talent. But Saibara went out and sold herself. I did it too, peddling my scripts the way (Sylvester Stallone) peddled ‘Rocky.’ If you don’t have the guts to do that, you won’t last in this world.”

Finally, Morioka sees a parallel between himself and Natsumi’s live-in, do-nothing boyfriend Ryosuke (Sosuke Ikematsu), a character he wrote into the script. “Women like Natsumi generally end up with shiftless guys,” he notes. “I also had a woman feeding me. My wife was a beautician and had a steady income, so I played around and lived with her without paying rent. Ryosuke is me. Natsumi wants Ryosuke around because she is lonely. A dog or cat would have done as well.”

Three decades have passed since Saibara first relocated to the capital and underwent the struggles that inspired “Jokyo Monogatari,” whose title translates as “Moving to Tokyo Story,” but Morioka had no qualms about setting the film’s story in the present.

“The only big difference is that part-timers back then didn’t have cellphones,” he jokes. He talks about students he teaches now at a vocational school in Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture. “It’s not so far from Tokyo — about two hours. But to all those kids, Tokyo is like a big dream. That kind of thing never changes.”