A folk-singer-turned-filmmaker who went to France in 1981 to apprentice under his idol François Truffaut, Masahiro Kobayashi may have failed in his quest (he couldn’t work up the courage to press Truffaut’s doorbell), but after returning to Japan became a prolific scriptwriter for pinku (softcore porn) films.
He later moved on to directing, with the 1996 indie drama “Closing Time.” Since then, Kobayashi has become a regular on the foreign festival circuit (highlighted by three consecutive invitations from Cannes) while earning foreign and domestic honors, including an Award of Excellence in Japanese Film prize at the Mainichi Film Awards for his 2010 road movie “Haru to no Tabi (Haru’s Journey).”
Kobayashi’s new film, “Nihon no Higeki (Japan’s Tragedy),” reunites him with “Haru” star Tatsuya Nakadai, the 80-year-old giant of Japanese cinema’s Golden Age who made 11 films with another Kobayashi, Masaki, including the 1962 samurai classic “Seppuku (Harakiri).”
In an interview with The Japan Times at the office of Eurospace, the Shibuya theater that is screening “Japan’s Tragedy” right now, Kobayashi says that he wrote his script for the film with Nakadai in mind. “He basically only takes on projects that he personally likes,” Kobayashi explains. “I knew there was a possibility of him rejecting the project so I kept other actors in mind to a lesser degree. Nakadai was the first actor I went to get feedback from, though.”
That feedback turned out to be positive, which Kobayashi, as a maker of low-budget films with little more than prestige to offer his cast, considers essential. “The lead actor has to like the script, comment on it and then come on board of his own accord,” Kobayashi says. “Otherwise, the film is very hard to make.”
He also cast Kazuki Kitamura as the unemployed, emotionally fragile son of Nakadai’s stoic, terminally ill father, who nails himself into a room and announces that he will stay there until he dies. Though he often plays gangsters and other violent, amoral types, Kitamura had a totally different image for Kobayashi, who first worked with him on “Closing Time.” “I’ve known him since before he became an actor — about 20 years,” Kobayashi explains. “He was working in a bar at the time and that’s the impression I still have of him. It never entered my mind to give him an aggressive role.”
Kobayashi describes shooting the film, which features long, emotional takes that are the cinematic equivalent of an Olympic marathon, as “an adventure at the beginning.” “On the first day I consider many options for shooting styles and so on, but once the cameras start rolling, you can’t go back,” he adds.
Fortunately, Nakadai and Kitamura both gave him exactly what he wanted. “Most of our filming was over by 1 or 2 in the afternoon,” the director comments. “I got worried because it was going too well.”
But Kobayashi found something else to fret about: the sound edit. “Sound is very important for this movie,” he explains. “I had no idea what the finished product would be like until the mastered sound was ready. Even after we finished editing I was very worried.”
At about this point in the interview, Kobayashi, 59, his thin face looking surprisingly unlined despite a confessed lifetime of heavy smoking and drinking, lights up the first of several cigarettes. The film, he continues, began life as an original script that he first drafted in October 2010. But after the March 11, 2011 tsunami that swept away the neighborhood around his second house in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture (“The house was situated on a high point, so it was safe”), he extensively rewrote it. “I wanted to examine how a small family changes after the tsunami.”
Yet another thematic focus became the growing number of Japanese who, like the son played by Kitamura, cannot find full-time work and are barely scraping by, in the son’s case by living off his father’s welfare check. Kobayashi says that Japan’s welfare system “is the bare minimum of what should be done. Many welfare recipients feel guilty, and many people chose to opt out of receiving welfare or are denied welfare by their city council. They give you grief for owning a car or air-conditioning and refuse to give you welfare. That’s a huge problem now.”
It is also, as the title implies and the film graphically shows, a tragedy that blights lives. “In Europe they have a strong social-welfare system,” he observes. “America is bad in that way, though — and that’s who (Japan is) trying to imitate.”
While addressing the results of that imitation, Kobayashi avoids the usual tear-stained close-ups to win audience sympathy. Instead he filmed key scenes from the middle distance in long, static takes, with the actors’ faces often turned away from the camera.
“I know it’s a risky way to film and I worried how it would turn out, but I’m satisfied with the results,” Kobayashi says with a wry grin. “In filmmaking you have to show the audience something. That is, you have to grab their attention with something they haven’t seen before. I don’t have the budget to do it with special effects … I have to do it my own way.”