Filmmakers with overseas experience or backgrounds are no longer that rare in Japan, but, at only 33 years old, Akio Fujimoto’s international credentials are exceptional.
When the Osaka native left his hometown for Tokyo almost 10 years ago, he became acquainted with members of the Myanmar community. Based on the stories they told him, he scripted and shot his first feature, “Passage of Life.” Depicting the struggles of a family from Myanmar in both Tokyo and Yangon, the film premiered at the 2017 Tokyo International Film festival, where it won Best Asian Future Film and The Spirit of Asia Award.
Akimoto’s relationship with the country extended beyond the film: He married a woman from Myanmar and, before the pandemic, divided his time between Tokyo and Yangon, where he worked on programs for public broadcaster NHK.
Fujimoto’s latest film is “Along the Sea,” which also focuses on Southeast Asians living in Japan. This time, his three protagonists are technical interns from Vietnam who work at a fishing port in northern Japan. After screening at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain last September and the Tokyo International Film Festival in November, the film is now on general release in Japan.
“Passage of Life” was cast entirely with people who had never acted before, but for “Along the Sea” Fujimoto, together with his cinematographer and producer, held auditions in Vietnam open to both amateurs and professionals.
After two weeks he found his three heroines, including Hoang Phuong, who plays the similarly named main character, Phuong. Outwardly tough and stoic, she silently struggles with a crippling stomach pain that threatens her livelihood, and which turns out to be an unwanted pregnancy.
“Ms. Phuong was the first one we cast,” Fujimoto says. “I wanted someone with a mysterious mood, so that you don’t know what she’s thinking … a woman who is a bit closed off.”
In contrast to the other actresses reading for the part, the director says Hoang stood out in that she wasn’t trying to sell herself too hard.
“She projected a strange sense of distance, as though she didn’t care if she passed the audition or not,” he recalls. “That coolness made me want to know more about her.”
Non-Japanese actors, he notes, typically only play supporting roles in Japanese films, no matter how cool or mysterious they are.
“The main characters are Japanese even if the setting is foreign,” Fujimoto says, adding that he finds this facet of the filmmaking process in Japan “really unusual.”
“If you make the heroine a foreigner you can’t sell it, it won’t become a hit,” he says. “So it’s hard to make that kind of film with a major studio. That’s unfortunate, but I believe more films like that will be made in the future and I won’t be the only one making them.”
Still, the precarious situation of Phuong and her fellow interns — An and Nhu (played by Huynh Tuyet Anh and Quynh Nhu, respectively) — who are working without the proper papers and whose passports are in the possession of their abusive former boss, makes for a gripping story that is sadly all too common in real life.
“When I made ‘Passage of Life’ seven years ago, I heard of people (in similar circumstances) and not much has changed since,” Fujimoto says. “There are many more Vietnamese in Japan now, but a lot of them are still in that same situation.”
The filmmaker says his original intention was to make a film that “children could watch.”
“I wanted to make a film that families could see together without any worries, so that meant no extreme violence,” he explains adding that he wanted to show it to students in elementary or junior high school. The perspective it offers into the lives of non-Japanese technical trainees, he adds, “is not found in Japanese education.”
Fujimoto says he would love it if schools could screen “Along the Sea” once a year and have students discuss it.
“It’s better to do it while they’re still young,” he says. “Japanese schools are closed worlds where prejudice against non-Japanese people can easily take root.”
At the same time, Fujimoto did not incorporate any obvious messages in the film.
“Even if I have something I really want to say, if I put too much of that message in the film, it becomes all about me,” he says. “Instead, I want viewers to take their own message from the film. If what I’m saying is too strong, it gets in the way of that. … I want them to search for the message in the main characters.”
Fujimoto also rejects the common critical assumption that he has made a glorified documentary.
“I don’t know what documentaries are because I’ve never made one,” he says. “And to be honest I don’t have much awareness of documentaries. I’m making fiction films.”
As fictional as its story may be, “Along the Sea” is sure to resonate with many non-Japanese viewers residing in Japan, from the polite indifference of the Japanese people the three protagonists encounter to Phuong’s despair as she wanders lost around an unfamiliar town.
“The Japanese (in the film) can’t imagine the women’s situation,” Fujimoto says. “Imagining that kind of thing has nothing to do with their own jobs, so they don’t try.”
Fujimoto has not yet decided on the subject of his next film but thinks “it will probably also be about migrants.”
“I’d like to continue the story of ‘Along the Sea,’” he says. “At least, I want to try.”
“Along the Sea” is now showing at select cinemas nationwide. For more information, visit https://umikano.com.
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