Actor-director Okuda revisits wreckage of 3/11

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Actors see, up close and personal, how directors do their job — and not a few imagine they can do it better. But the number of Japanese actors who move successfully into the director’s chair is small, one reason being that roles in the film world here are defined more rigidly than elsewhere.

Actor-director Eiji Okuda, however, has been defying norms and categories for much of his career. As an actor he was something of a late bloomer: Born in 1950, he was pushing 30 when he got his first starring role in Toshiya Fujita’s 1979 drama “Motto Shinayaka ni, Motto Shitataka ni” (“More Flexibly, More Forcefully”), playing the male apex of a love triangle.

Also, at a time when the Japanese film industry was trying to reverse its declining fortunes by dumbing down its products, Okuda was winning prizes for appearing in unapologetically arty fare, including Kei Kumai’s 1986 and ’89 films “Umi to Dokuyaku (The Sea and Poison)” and “Sen no Rikyu: Honkakubo Ibun (Death of a Tea Master).” Then, in the 1990s, he won new fans playing self-harming gangsters and other offbeat types for such directors as Tatsumi Kumashiro (“Bo no Kanashimi” ["Like a Rolling Stone"], 1994) and Rokuro Mochizuki (“Onibi [The Fire Within],” 1997).

In 2001, Okuda directed his first film, “Shojo (An Adolescent),” a drama about a hardboiled cop (Okuda) who becomes acquainted with a living-on-the-edge 15-year-old girl. The film won prizes at festivals in Paris, Thessaloniki (Greece) and Los Angeles and launched Okuda on a second career as an auteur, though he has since stopped appearing in his own films.

On Sept. 18, at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, Okuda presented his fifth and latest film as a director: “Kyoko to Shuichi no Baai (Case of Kyoko, Case of Shuichi),” which opens in Japan on Oct. 5. Daughter and star Sakura Ando was also there, but not her co-star and husband Tasuku Emoto, who was busy with a play rehearsal that evening.

The story, which Okuda developed from his own idea (“I thought up the whole thing on a long car ride,” he later explained to me at the FCCJ bar), revolves around a man, Shuichi (Emoto), and woman, Kyoko (Ando), who find themselves distant from their Tohoku hometowns when the March 11, 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake strikes — but neither makes an immediate attempt to return.

The reasons lie not only in their present circumstances, but also their troubled pasts, which the film details in parallel story lines, bringing the two protagonists into close proximity only for the climax.

This is not the first time father and daughter have worked together: Ando also appeared in Okuda’s 2007 “Kaze no Sotogawa (Out of the Wind.)” “When she was in (the earlier film), she had just made her full-fledged acting debut,” Okuda told the audience and press. “In the six years since she’s matured into a first-class actress.”

That is not just fatherly pride talking: Playing a woman who begins selling insurance after her fisherman husband falls ill, Ando brings a focused, thoughtful individuality to each scene, even when it lends itself to broad theatrics. When she is driven from her family and hometown by a scandal in which she is more victim than perpetrator, Kyoko refuses to play the assigned role of fallen woman. There is something bold and defiant in her gaze, though she feels guilt-stricken about leaving her young son and, after the earthquake strikes, frets about his safety.

Asked about the six-year gap between films with her father, Ando said, “Nothing has changed — we’re still father and daughter, so it’s different from working with other directors. But we may have been more relaxed with each other than before.” She got a laugh by adding that “the money for the films my father makes is money from our household, so (when we’re together on the set), I get frustrated thinking of ways he could economize.”

Okuda parried that he was “envious” of director Francis Ford Coppola, who kept making films after going bankrupt, but added, “I’ve learned more from (the notoriously penny-pinching) Clint Eastwood about how to use money.” Ando, however, looked skeptical.

Takusu Emoto, the son of veteran character actor Akira Emoto, also impresses as the outwardly impassive but inwardly seething Shuichi, who is sent to a reformatory as a teenager after killing his violent unemployed father in defense of his battered-housewife mother. After his release, he is given a job in a local machine shop by the kindly owner — and learns that several of his colleagues also have juvenile records: One becomes his friend and two his enemies, while a pretty office girl (Ena Koshino) takes another sort of interest in him. Then he hears that his mother has gone missing in the tsunami. Should he stay with this new life than promises much for the future, or revisit his old one?

A similar go-or-stay choice presented itself to Okuda, who volunteered his services to the victims in Tohoku, but felt he had to somehow do more. “I started to think about how I should deal with the tsunami and Fukushima as an artist,” he said. His answer was to make the sort of film that “only I could shoot, but the majors couldn’t. That is, a film that would depict the depth of human feelings.”

After working out the story in the aforementioned car ride, he spent five days at home hammering out the first draft of a script about what he described as two people in throes of a “spiritual tsunami.”

Their issues, it could be argued, have little to do with the actual tsunami of 3/11, or living in Tohoku for that matter, but the film also shows how the disaster refocuses them on a past and a place they thought they had left behind.

“The earthquake connected me strongly to people in Tohoku, even though I was in Tokyo when it occurred,” Okuda told me. “I wanted to express that feeling in a film.”