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Higashi gets melodramatic (but not too much)

by Mark Schilling

Born in Wakayama Prefecture in 1934, Yoichi Higashi graduated from Waseda University’s Department of Literature in 1958 and entered Iwanami Film Production, a documentary and educational film company. After making his feature debut with “Okinawa Retto (Okinawa Archipelago)” in 1969, he won the Directors Guild of Japan New Talent Award for the drama “Yasashii Nipponjin (The Gentle Japanese)” in 1971. He thereafter made films steadily, if not frequently, including the hit 1992 drama “Hashi no Nai Kawa (The River with No Bridge)” about the burakumin (outcast) liberation movement in early 20th-century Japan and 1996′s “E no Naka no Boku no Mura (Village of Dreams),” a childhood drama set in Kochi Prefecture in the early postwar period.

In person, Higashi has none of the airs of the film industry elder. Instead he is open and frank about the process of bringing his latest film, “Yoi ga Sametara, Uchi ni Kaero (Wandering Home)” to the screen — and is both self-deprecating and caustic about its prospects on the international festival circuit. I was struck by the realism of Tadanobu Asano’s portrayal. It was a contrast to his similarly alcoholic author in “Viyon no Tsuma (Villon’s Wife).” (The difference) comes from methods (the other director) and I used to direct Asano. “Villon’s Wife” is a story set in the era of (author) Osamu Dazai, and since the period is far in the past, the dialogue has to accurately reflect how people spoke. In my case, the dialogue was written with extreme accuracy, but when I spoke with Asano I told him he could forget what he had read (in the script) and just say it in his own words. “Villon’s” was closer to the script, but I thought it would be better not to direct an actor like Asano that way. I thought he should have more freedom. To let him be his natural self? His natural self . . . Well, “his natural self” may be a strange way to put it. I like to tell this story about the actor Gene Hackman. Some interviewer in Hollywood asked him, “What’s the one thing you least want in a director?” Gene Hackman answered, “Direction,” ha ha. The reason being that he had the script down cold. He had his own image (of the role), so he could do it himself. That’s why he didn’t like directors who would tell him to do it this way or that way. Asano is that type of actor as well. You really capture the atmosphere of a psychiatric hospital. I’ve done some reporting in that sort of place, so I know. Ha ha! When mental hospitals appear in Japanese films, they always show people acting strangely. But that’s not the way it really is. (The patients) are not shut out from the world — they’re connected. I showed (the patients) as ordinary people.

There are a lot people in mental hospitals who don’t want to go back (to the world). They feel more peaceful in the hospital. Even if they have a family, they (often) have no place to go back to. There are a lot of people in Japan like that. In the scenes where the hero gets violent, his face turns black. A person (the producer and I) actually knew was an alcoholic. When he drank, there would be nothing out of the ordinary about him at first. But somewhere along the way, a switch would go on and he’d change. Once (when he was drunk), he tossed everything out of his place in the middle of the night. (Asano) turning black and growling is treated symbolically (in the film), but it’s based on what (the producer and I) know about reality.

Your other films also have that sort of switch from the real to the surreal. Right. They’re pretty realistic, but I like to make scenes that you don’t know are real or unreal. Other Japanese films on this theme are like melodramatic TV family tearjerker dramas. Do you like family dramas? Not particularly. I don’t like them either. In my opinion, they’re all lies. Your film is a rarity in that way. That sort of lie makes audiences happy. So a film like mine may not make them happy. I’m a little worried about that, ha ha. Have you submitted the film to foreign festivals? Foreign film festivals have been a little tough. We couldn’t finish the film in time for Berlin, which we know quite well.

We may have been ready for Cannes, but it isn’t a Cannes film. I know about a number of foreign film festivals and I’ve won awards, but what European film festivals want from Japanese films is a type of orientalism or exoticism. But there are any number of films in the world about alcoholism like “Wandering Home,” ha ha. You’ve had some long gaps between your films. That’s because the films I make don’t become hits. So I don’t get work. When I submit films to foreign festivals and they sometimes mistakenly win prizes, it’s a little PR for me. Also, I’m happy when foreign people see my films, even though they’re from a country with a different culture, and I’m happy when they understand them. But this film may be impossible, ha ha.