Downtown Tokyo’s fiery love


“Deep in the Valley,” which was made in downtown Tokyo and appears to have had a budget of ¥5 plus, probably, a box of persimmons for all involved (random gifts are very downtown), is an accident. And I mean that in a good, romantic way.

There’s the romance of street punk Hisaki (a stand-out performance from Yuki Nomura) and Kaori (Mayu Sato), but also the romance surrounding the famous five-story pagoda at Yanaka Cemetery, originally built in 1644 and destroyed by fire in 1957.

The film might have been an accident (more later), but it was no accident that the beacon of all things traditional in this shitamachi (old downtown) neighborhood was burned down; a laundryman and his mistress committed double suicide by setting themselves on fire inside the pagoda.

The film, an official selection at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, centers on Kaori’s search, as a member of the Yanaka Film Association, for footage of the actual fire.

The three-pronged story switches between the modern-day, the building of the pagoda in the Edo Period (1603-1868), with Nomura and Sato also acting out historical roles, and interviews with the old folk of Yanaka, who reminisce about the pagoda.

Director Atsushi Funahashi never intended the film to turn out like this. It started out as a thesis project for his students at Enbu, a film and acting studio in Tokyo. But then . . .”Originally I was thinking that the film was going to be a story of the memory of the lost historical building. I was going to make the film without the visuals of the actual pagoda burning in 1957,” says Funahashi. “Then someone mentioned, during many, many interviews we filmed, that he saw the old 8-mm film, but didn’t remember where and when he saw it. I start asking all the interviewees about the film and one of them knew the owner. It was the Buddhist monk who was also working for the local fire brigade. He shot the 8-mm film while he was putting the fire out. He must have been very busy!”

What first gave you the inspiration to film in Yanaka?

I moved to Yanaka in 2007. It is known as “Temple Town” because it is filled with many Buddhist temples and graveyards. In the midst of the din and bustle of Tokyo I was fascinated by its quiet mood. It appeared to be a holy place filled with ghosts floating in the air.

Originally the word yanaka meant “in the middle of the valley.” The area is located in a deep gorge between two high plateaux, and it seemed to me that the valley was the “in-between zone” of high and low societies, or the rich and the poor, or the living and the dead. Then after I settled in Yanaka I learned that many traditional Edo craftsmen live in the neighborhood. Their specialties include calligraphy for gravestones, matoi (emblem poles for Edo firemen brigades), and omen (Japanese masks). When I chatted with them, they all mentioned the same thing: a wish to rebuild the five-story pagoda, a Buddhist temple that used to stand in Yanaka Cemetery and gather public admiration. I wondered why they missed the building that was gone 50 years before. From that simple question I start interviewing people in Yanaka.

The film has a string of romances from different eras . . .

You could say that the similar romances happen in different times: the young couple at the present, the couple who burned themselves in the pagoda in 1957, and Jubei and Onami — the couple in the Edo Period portrayed in “Five-Story Pagoda” by Rohan Koda (a novel published in 1892). That is the exact point I wanted to make in the film. It is to connect the different times of Yanaka visually and provoke viewers to think what has changed since Edo and what has not.

Did you read the Rohan Koda book for the first time in school? Some of my friends said it was on their Japanese literature syllabus and they had to read it in school.

I didn’t read the book since I was a lazy student, but I recall that the book was included in the kids library. Although, thinking back from now, I don’t think I would have understood the book when I was a kid. The wording is in old-style Japanese and a bit difficult to read.

The young punk is like the young carpenter in the Edo Period. They both kind of rebel, but in different ways, because they lived in different eras.

You got the point. The young men are both rebels, but in different ways because they lived in different times. Also, the Boss Genta, the carpenter in the Edo Period, suppresses the young carpenter, just like the old man Kato-san scolds the young couple. The Japanese custom of the older generation looking down upon the younger generation — that has not changed, I think.

Where did you find Nomura and Sato? They deliver excellent performances.

They are unknowns. Yuki Nomura was a student in my acting class at Enbu Seminar, a film school in Tokyo. Mayu Sato belonged to the talent agency that I knew, but she had never acted in a film.

What reaction did the film get in Berlin?

In 2008, Christoph Terhechte, the program director of Berlin International Film Festival, saw the film and liked it very much. He said, “It is this young man who committed the impossible act of knocking his master off the throne that the older generation admires today as one of the great founders of tradition. This relativizes the conflict between the generations very nicely.” The crowd at the festival was extremely passionate and Q&A sessions after the screenings went very long.

Perhaps the death of the pagoda is in line with the death of traditions in this area, like the shotengai (main shopping street) getting a ¥100 store and non-Japanese “ethnic” restaurants encroaching nearby. What do you think about that and do you think anything should be done about that?

My question is do Yanaka people really want the pagoda rebuilt or are they just melancholic. Now there is a shitamachi boom in Japan, and many people enjoy walking around Yanaka with digital cameras. They appreciate the “good old days” of downtown Tokyo. The boom seems very superficial. But people are actually interested in Yanaka because, consciously or subconsciously, they want to identify their roots and see what has changed and what has not changed in the midst of a fast-paced society. For example, the appearance of the buildings has changed. But the closeness and warmth of Yanaka people don’t change.

“Deep in the Valley” is showing at Cinemart Shinjuku daily at 11:10 a.m. with English subtitles. For information on postscreening talks, check www.deepinthevalley.net