Globally minded director goes native

Masahiro Kobayashi talks about his latest film, a Japanese family drama, and about the 'bashing' at home that has followed his remarkable string of successes abroad


It’s sad but true that Japanese directors with big reputations abroad are often odd men (or women) out back home.

Juzo Itami won the hearts of Western audiences with his 1985 foodie comedy “Tampopo,” but in the Japanese film industry he was considered an outsider from the world of television, where he had won fame as an actor and chat-show personality.

Shinya Tsukamoto became a cult hero worldwide for his ultraviolent cyberpunk fantasies, beginning with his 1989 breakout “Tetsuo” (“Tetsuo the Iron Man”). In Japan, though, he often struggled to get his films screened, while many of his industry peers regarded them as little more than freak shows.

Itami and Tsukamoto told me the above themselves; I am assuming they were being truthful.

Nonetheless, Masahiro Kobayashi’s case is among the more extreme.

Like many Japanese directors of his baby-boomer generation, he fell in love with European movies at a young age. After failing as a singer-songwriter and quitting his job as a postal worker, at age 28 Kobayashi journeyed to France to meet his idol, Francois Truffaut — and ask him if he could be his assistant.

His quest ended in failure (he couldn’t bring himself to push the doorbell to Truffaut’s office), but he later parlayed his passion for films into a successful career as a scriptwriter.

Not satisfied with grinding out scripts for TV and the made-in-Japan variety of soft porn known as pinku eiga (pink films), Kobayashi directed his first feature, “Closing Time,” at age 42. Deeply influenced by his beloved European auteurs, Kobayashi’s early films were barely released in Japan, but three in a row, beginning with 1999’s “Bootleg Film,” were screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

This raised the ire of certain critics and colleagues, who suspected the Francophile Kobayashi of benefiting from favoritism. Worse was yet to come. When his 2005 film “Bashing” was selected for the Cannes competition — the only Japanese film to be so honored that year — his detractors launched an intense Internet hate campaign that Kobayashi later ruefully compared to the bullying inflicted on the film’s heroine — a young woman volunteer who was captured by insurgents in Iraq and, after her release, was treated like a pariah back in her Hokkaido hometown.

Her crime? Causing trouble for her rescuers and embarrassment for her compatriots — though her worst offense was her “arrogance” in wanting to help strangers in a distant, dangerous land.

Kobayashi’s new film, “Haru tono Tabi” (“Travels with Haru”), features a similarly young, socially awkward heroine from a Hokkaido backwater — but there the comparisons end.

Instead of a stark, unrelenting examination of Japanese insularity and intolerance, “Haru tono Tabi” is a family-drama-cum-road-movie of a type familiar from local antecedents such as Yasujiro Ozu’s 1953 “Tokyo Monogatari” (“Tokyo Story”) and Shohei Imamura’s 1983 “Narayama Bushiko” (“Ballad of Narayama”). It is also clearly pitched at a local audience. Unfortunately, Cannes did not extend an invitation, though Kobayashi is still hoping for other festival screenings.

In person, surrounded by handlers in a suite in Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel on the day of the film’s gala Tokyo premiere, 56-year-old Kobayashi looks surprisingly young despite his long grayish hair — and fragile state of health. (A two-pack-a-day smoking habit had something to do with it, though in his blog, where he describes his aches and pains in bare-bones prose, he doesn’t give details.)

His voice is soft, if scratchy, and his manner is gentle, if slightly weary. (In his blog he complains about the grind of media interviews, singling out reporters with no real interest in his film as being particularly tiresome.)

The genesis of “Haru tono Tabi,” Kobayashi explains, came in 2001, after he had just completed “Aruku Hito” (“Man Walking on Snow”) and was contemplating another project. In September, in quick succession, his wife gave birth and terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York. The joy of new life and the shock of mass death inspired him to begin writing a film about family.

“It was hard to get what I wanted,” he said. “I wrote and rewrote the script, again and again.”

He finally put it through nearly 100 revisions, in the interim making three films — including “Bashing” — that incorporated a social critique new to his work.

“In Japan, they were still making a lot of idiotic films (after 9/11), but in the rest of the world, filmmakers were headed in a different, more serious direction, making films about war in Iraq.” he explained.

“Films can reflect what is going on in society, though not only that, of course. I didn’t especially want to make that kind of film, but it seemed to be the only kind getting made.”

Despite his initial reluctance, Kobayashi shot the three films in what he called “a documentary style that I learned from (British director) Mike Leigh.” Meanwhile he kept revising the script for “Haru tono Tabi,” but with a new socially conscious slant. “If I hadn’t made those three films, I probably couldn’t have made this one,” he said.

Three years ago, Tatsuya Nakadai, the iconic actor who has worked with Akira Kurosawa and other greats of Japanese cinema in a five-decade career, saw the script and asked to play the role of Tadao, the cantankerous, stroke-disabled fisherman who travels with his granddaughter and caregiver Haru (Eri Tokunaga) to find a family member who will take him in so Haru can go off on her own to work in Tokyo.

Even with Nakadai aboard, Kobayashi struggled to find backers: “It’s a simple story about a family, right?,” he said as though stating the obvious. “So no one would give us money.”

His track record as a Cannes regular, he laments, did not mean much to potential financial backers. “Japan is not a developed country — it’s more like a developing country,” he says. ” In a developed country, if your film is invited to Cannes, you’re treated like some kind of hero. But here that’s not the case at all. Instead, it works against you.”

Having cobbled together the financing, he made his last casting choice — Eri Tokunaga, a screen newcomer, for the role of Haru. “I only met her once before casting her,” he said. “We talked for about 30 minutes — and then I decided she would be Haru. I thought I would interview more actresses — we were holding an audition — but after meeting her I couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role.”

The film’s difficult, 9-year gestation has paid off in at least one way: Kobayashi is getting his biggest-ever release — nearly 80 screens across the country. Nakadai’s presence on the marquee is one reason. Another is that, while being completely a Kobayashi film in style and approach, “Haru tono Tabi” is in a traditionally humanistic vein more suited to the tastes of the local audience than his more arty and Westernized work.

“Maybe I’m getting old, but I wanted to make one Japanese-style film,” he said. “But I don’t like to think I’ve become conservative.”

Though the film is aimed first at the domestic market, Kobayashi also wants the world to see it — particularly festival audiences.

“If (a film of mine) is not invited to a festival, I feel that it’s pointless to have made it,” he explained. One reason is that, for indie films like Kobayashi’s, with no big media backers, festivals serve as free venues for promotion.

“Also, the reactions (from the audience) can encourage you and give you confidence in what you’re doing,” he said. “So there are no down sides.”

Kobayashi claims to like even the straighter criticism he gets from audiences abroad. “At one festival an old couple came up to me in a cafe and said, ‘Your film is no good,’ ” he said, with a laugh. “You never hear that kind of thing in Japan.”

For his future films, Kobayashi has no intention of returning to the socio-political concerns of his work this decade. Instead, he wants to make what he described as “my sort of entertainment” — even though that means, he said with a self-deprecating grin, “the films end up not being entertaining. . . . But to a certain extent, I want to make films that audiences can enjoy,” he added.

He also hopes to some day escape the low-budget fate of the typical Japanese indie filmmaker. Art films, he observed, have not always been cheap here. “Kurosawa would spend one billion yen — a huge amount of money for the time — making an art film,” he said. “Imamura would spend 200 or 300 million yen making his art films, not 20 million. So it’s not impossible to do that sort of thing. But my wife gets mad at me when I talk that way.

” ‘You’re not Kurosawa!’ ” she says. But who said that Kurosawa was so special? I think it’s natural to aim for something like that and see how close you can get. When someone says, ‘You’ll never be Kurosawa,’ I’d like to ask, ‘Why not?’ “

Mark Schilling reviews “Haru tono Tabi” on today’s Film page.