Funahashi: ‘Good stories don’t need happy endings’

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

A graduate of the University of Tokyo’s cinema studies course, Atsushi Funahashi studied directing at the School of Visual Arts in New York and shot his first two films, “Echoes” (2002) and “Big River” (2005), in the United States. With his background as a longtime, English-fluent expat, Funahashi could have conceivably moved his entire career abroad, but the March 11, 2011 triple disaster turned his thoughts decisively toward home.

That day, Funahashi was three weeks away from starting production on the film that was to become “Sakura Namiki no Mankai no Shita ni (Cold Bloom),” but the disaster forced its cancellation. “A year later we got the funding together and made the film again in a different way with a different cast and different production crew,” he comments in an interview at Office Kitano, which will corelease the film in Japan with Theatre Tokyo on April 13. “I also had to rewrite the script, because somehow it didn’t fit the location.”

That location was Hitachi, a coastal city in Ibaraki Prefecture that was hit hard by the earthquake and tsunami — and whose local film commission and government supported his film’s production. “They said you can make whatever kind of film you want; all we ask is that you film everything in Hitachi and shoot the cherry trees,” he recalls with a wry smile.

Before restarting “Cold Bloom,” Funahashi made “Nuclear Nation,” a documentary about the evacuated residents of Futaba, a town near the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. His work on that film, as well as his research in Ibaraki for “Cold Bloom,” convinced him that “the psychology of the Japanese people changed after 3/11.”

“I had to adapt to this shadowy, dark (post-3/11) mood,” he adds, “with people feeling that nothing is going to get better anytime soon.”

The film’s story, however, of a woman who comes to love the man responsible for the death of her husband was inspired by Mikio Naruse’s 1967 film “Midaregumo (Scattered Clouds).” While calling himself a “big fan of Naruse,” Funahashi confesses that his ambition was bigger than to simply rework a Naruse classic: “Actually, what I wanted to do with this film was explore the genre of psychological drama, which was very popular in Japanese films in the 1950s and 1960s.”

But such films, the best of which subtly traced changes in intimate human relationships, have, Funashashi laments, fallen out of favor in recent years. “(Japanese films) are now more superficial, more visual,” he says. “Not many are interested in internal psychological drama, because it’s not visually big and stunning on the surface.”

He also followed Naruse’s classic models into the dark side of human experience, because, as he explains, “that’s how it is.”

“At least the audience can feel that what’s happening in front of them is real,” he continues. “If (the story) is realistically told, it will be a good film — it doesn’t have to have a happy ending.”

In addition to its drama of hate turning into love, the film investigates the way workers, including the film’s conscientious hero Takumi (Takahiro Miura), can become helpless in the face of larger economic forces. “Japanese craftsman do their job very well, but when the whole organization they work for collapses, they can’t get their stuff together,” he says.

Hitachi turned out to be a good example of that dilemma, since it was, as Funahashi notes, a town that thrived when the Hitachi corporation, for which many of the townspeople worked directly or indirectly, was in the ascendant in the 1960s. But now, he adds, “many of the factories are closed, and a lot of stores too. The mood there is very shadowy and dark and I thought that it represented Japan as a whole.”

When he took “Cold Bloom” to the Berlin International Film Festival this year, Funahashi discovered that films there from other parts of the world expressed the same mood, with filmmakers looking backward to the past. “When things are not going well, people reflect back,” he says. “I didn’t intend to echo this worldwide current myself — it was by accident.”

The disaster, he notes, has not only depressed the economy and psychology of the affected regions, but made outsiders reluctant to invest or live there. At the same time, Funahashi believes that the people of Japan’s northeastern Tohoku region will “recover very soon — I mean spiritually.”

But he has no plans to make a fictional film set in the region.

“It’s still too early to depict the nuclear crisis with fiction,” he says. “I think you have to make a documentary, because the crisis is still ongoing. When you make it fiction, you can’t depict the reality. You can make such a film 10 years from now — maybe then it would make sense.”

Funahashi’s films

“Echoes” (2002): A road movie about a young New Yorker who sets out on a journey into her troubled past.

“Big River” (2005): A road movie about a Pakistani man searching for his estranged wife in the United States, with the help of a Japanese hitchhiker and an American trailer-park girl.

“Yanaka Boshoku (Deep in the Valley)” (2009): A drama about two young Japanese film archivists digging into the visual history of Tokyo’s Yanaka neighborhood, while becoming more attracted to each other.

“Nuclear Nation” (2012): A documentary examining the lives of evacuees from Futaba, a town near the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.