A Japanese Jim Jarmusch

by Kaori Shoji

If the name Atsushi Funahashi doesn’t ring any bells in the Japanese film industry, it’s mainly because the domestic film scene had never been his primary concern.

“I’ve lived and worked in New York for nine years,” says the 32-year-old native Osakan and graduate of the New York School of Visual Arts.

After working on a series of documentaries, his debut feature, “Echoes” (2002), opened in the East Village of New York City, and put his name on the map of upcoming young indie directors.

“Big River” is his latest work, and is his second collaboration with cinematographer Eric Van Den Brulle; they also co-wrote the screenplay.

“I trust Eric implicitly and we have a very strong working relationship going. I used to think that a filmmaker is a pretty isolated presence, but I’ve really learned to appreciate good, working relationships based on trust. Believe me, when you’re out there with a multinational/multilingual cast, staff and producers, those become your most valuable assets.’

What gave you the idea for the screenplay?

Eric and I went to Sicily for two weeks and worked on the story. I had this idea about throwing three people together who in their individual ways represent a certain aspect of current American demographics, and seeing what happens.

My last film was set in Manhattan, so this time I thought I would bring these people together in a very “American” kind of setting, with a huge sky and vast open spaces and gorgeous mountainscapes. I also wanted to make some comments about the way men are, the ways they behave or cope with their problems. In many ways, the movie is just as much about gender as it is about relationships and friendships.

Yes, in one scene the Japanese backpacker Teppei is called a jerk by American girl Sarah. And Ali’s wife will have nothing to do with him, and seems reluctant to even stand in the parking lot with him. What does this say about men?

(Laughs). Well, those two women were absolutely right, don’t you think?

Seriously though, the movie is about the absence of commitment, and how many men today, regardless of nationality, can’t or won’t make real connections with other people, especially with girlfriends and wives.

So it’s not a Japanese thing, or an Asian thing?

Oh, no. I think it’s a universal symptom. Perhaps it’s always been there, and we’re finally learning to address it. But personally, I’m fascinated by the urge to draw back, to not commit and wish to drift and wander, alone. Of course, after awhile the situation becomes impossible, even the toughest of loners need other people. But the wish to be with others and the wish not to make any strong commitments are two different things. And I’m interested in what bridges that gap.

Do you think the film makes any statements about Japan, in some way or other?

No. I tried to avoid that. Teppei doesn’t utter one phrase of Japanese. I figured, this guy is traveling in a foreign country and he’s not with any Japanese friends so it follows he speaks in English.

I hired Joe Odagiri for the role, mainly because he’s a wonderful actor but also because I’d heard he had studied in the States. And it worked very well. He has this air of rootlessness and noncommitment, and he can pull off speaking in relatively natural, unstilted English. Actually, he could have come from anywhere in the world but the fact that he’s Japanese doesn’t affect the story in one way or another.

The threesome, in a car, on the road, accented by perpetual clouds of cigarette smoke. This is very mindful of Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise.”

Yes, I get that a lot. Of course I love his work, but I would hate to think ‘Big River’ was in any way a rip-off.

Are there any merits about being a Japanese filmmaker in the New York film scene?

No. I wish there were. But I do feel that there are more opportunities here than in Japan to make movies suitable for an international audience. Mostly, it’s the language. For me, it’s now become much easier to work in English. It allows for more flexibility and scope, and far less red tape to sift through. I think I’ve carved out a good spot for myself. But we’ll see how it goes.