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Director Ishii brings style to family drama

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Japanese directors with any kind of ambition usually end up making a family drama, which is to Japanese cinema what the Western used to be to Hollywood: the core national genre.

Of course, plenty of bad-to-mediocre directors here have made family dramas, just as plenty of bad-to-mediocre Hollywood directors once made Westerns. But in the same way the Western was defined by its giants, John Ford and Howard Hawks among them, so the Japanese family drama is exemplified by its masters, including Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse.

The latest to make the attempt is Yuya Ishii, who was turning out quirky black comedies at a rapid clip in his early 20s and screening them at festivals around the world, including special sections at the 2008 Rotterdam and Hong Kong festivals. Among the honors this wunderkind accumulated was the Edward Yang New Talent Award at the 2008 Asian Film Awards, when he was 24.

Ishii’s 2010 dramady “Kawa no Soko kara Konnichiwa (Sawako Decides)” was still quirky — its 20-something heroine (Hikari Mitsushima) ran a clam-packing factory she took over from her dad — but it was also tethered to real-life concerns in post-Lehman-shock Japan. Also screened widely abroad, “Sawako Decides” showed that Ishii was growing as a filmmaker, a wunderkind no more.

His latest, “Azemichi no Dandy (A Man With Style),” is more Ishii than Ozu in its sudden, if firmly motivated, emotional eruptions and strange but sweet flights of fantasy. At the same time, its story of a father’s anxiety over his own authority and his offspring’s futures is a genre standard.

In an interview at the office of distributor Bitters End, looking rosy-cheeked and bright-eyed, but already the confidently experienced (if not “veteran”) director, Ishii denied any intent to match himself against Ozu and Naruse: “It was the exact opposite,” he explained. “The budget was limited, so what we could do was limited. For that reason I wanted to make a film on a very, very basic human theme, something quite simple. But if I could do anything, I might start thinking about making a spaceship or filming a war.”

The “dandy” of the title is one Junichi Miyata (Ken Mitsuishi), a 50-year-old deliveryman who is still to trying to live up to a vow he made as boy to be a “cool man.” This means he lives by a traditional macho code to project strength, protect the weak and never, ever cry. Very important that last one, since the 13-year-old Junichi was prone to blubbering, even in front of his best pal Sanada, who is still his best and, in fact, his only friend, decades later.

In addition to worrying about his masculinity, Miyata is facing the usual middle-aged dad dilemmas: His son Toshiya (Ryu Morioka), who is studying for his college entrance exams, and daughter Momoko (Jun Yoshinaga), a high school senior unsure about her future plans, shrug at his warnings and advice (usually delivered at a screech). Sanada (Tomorowo Taguchi) loyally lends an ear at their regular drinking sessions, but Miyata’s beloved wife (Naomi Nishida) died at age 39, leaving only memories, including a silly kid’s song he can’t get out of his head.

He is essentially on his own — but can’t bring himself to reach out for help. His macho code forbids it, though his whole personality rebels against the code.

Ishii wrote the script to this story before Mitsuishi, a veteran character actor who had not had a leading role in 32 years, was cast by his producer. “I rewrote the script, trying to make it more interesting for Mitsuishi,” he explains. “That goes for the other cast members as well — I tailored the script to them.”

Having seen many family dramas by Ishii’s seniors, including Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Tokyo Sonata” and Hirokazu Kore’eda’s “Aruitemo Aruitemo (Still Walking),” both from 2008, and Sion Sono’s “Chanto Tsutaeru (Be Sure to Share)” from 2009, I tell him that I’ve often wondered why so many of the dads are so hard-headed and, finally, lonely. “That’s the traditional Japanese father,” Ishii says. “He’s short-tempered and not liked by his kids.”

But more Japanese fathers today, he adds, “are simply ignored by their wife and children. So rather than a film about a traditional Japanese father, I wanted to make one about what to me is an ideal, a father I’d like to see in this day and age.”

Ishii likes his heroes to be on the emotional boil, but Mitsuishi keeps Miyata’s eruptions (barely) under control, while giving hints of the gentler, more caring person under the hot-tempered surface. His heart, we see over the shouting, is in the right place. Even his quixotic quest to be the real man of his boyhood dreams starts to look less foolish, more admirable.

“He’s not living a contradiction,” Ishii says with some heat. “He is living for an ideal. A man should always have something to strive for. It’s alright if he doesn’t achieve it.” And Ishii’s own ideal? “I have one. I want to become like (the hero) in the film. I can see myself as that kind of middle-aged guy.”

There is, he is quick to add, little overlap between Miyata and his own father. “There is a link in the story itself — my father also lost his wife early,” Ishii explains. “But I would never think of putting my own father in a film. He’s still alive and well — it would be difficult.”

Ishii has his doubts about how well “Azemichi no Dandy” will be received abroad, despite the hitherto warm reception foreign fans have given his films.

“The person who translated the script told me that foreigners won’t understand the father,” he says. “In the West, fathers have more of a clear position and are respected by their children. So (Westerners) won’t get why the father is disrespected so much. But even if they don’t understand, I’m okay with it. The foreign opinion (of the film) isn’t everything.”

At least critics, foreign or no, can’t slate him for the film’s sentimentality, since it has none. Instead, Ishii keeps an objective/ironic distance from dramatic turns that another director would shamelessly manipulate. “I didn’t want to jerk tears, but I did want emotion,” he says. “I wanted to make scenes saying that human beings are basically good. But I tried not to put too much weight on that. I tried not to overdo it.”

One way to accomplish that, he explains, was to keep the characters from hugging. “(Westerners) have asked me why a parent and child don’t hug when they part from each other in a Japanese film. The Japanese way is not to hug in that situation. Japanese keep a distance between their bodies. I’m always conscious of that Japanese sort of feeling, that good side of Japanese culture.”

At the same time, Ishii realizes that Japan, as well as Japanese attitudes toward film, have changed since March 11. He mentions the decisions by Yoji Yamada and Takeshi Kitano to suspend ongoing film projects in the wake of the disaster. “The fans’ mindset has changed, both consciously and unconsciously,” he says “But my goal for ‘Dandy’ was to make something universal, something with a theme that was the same 50 years ago and will be the same 50 years from now. Even after March 11, I think it has the power to be released just as it is.”

Looking to the future, Ishii does not, like many similarly successful indie directors, want to make big-budget commercial films (“I’m not so concerned with the budget — I’d just like to be able to do what I want.”), though he is interested in going abroad to work (“It’s something I think I should do and want to do.”).

Meanwhile, he sees big changes ahead for not only his own career, but the Japanese film industry as a whole: “I don’t think the medium of film itself is going to be the way it is now in 10 or 20 years time. Films are going to be different. They are going to naturally change, for better or worse. So I have to meet that challenge, in various ways. I’m still only 27, so I have the strength to do it.”

“Azemichi no Dandy (A Man With Style)” is now playing in theaters across the country. For more information, visit www.bitters.co.jp/azemichi.