Sabu tempts fate in new film

by Matthew Hernon

Special To The Japan Times

Sitting across from me with his sunglasses, dark leather jacket and mohawk, Hiroyuki Tanaka — better known simply as Sabu — doesn’t look like the kind of guy who lets his emotions get the better of him, yet even he was almost brought to tears by the reaction his movie “Chasuke’s Journey” (“Ten no Chasuke”) received at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival. His eighth visit to the event, it was his first time to receive a Golden Bear nomination.

“The actual ceremony sold out almost straight away so they put on an extra screening in the city,” recalls the 50-year-old director. “I decided to sneak in the back with the producer toward the end of the movie. When the credits came up people were on their feet, applauding and shouting bravo. Nobody knew I was in there, which made it extra special. I was so moved, I nearly cried.”

Starring Kenichi Matsuyama (“Norwegian Wood”), Ito Ohno and Yusuke Iseya (“Blindness”), “Chasuke’s Journey” is a romantic fantasy that parodies blockbusters like “Titanic” and “Ghost.” The story, which is based on Sabu’s first-ever novel of the same name, starts out in heaven where a group of scholarly scriptwriters are plotting screenplays for people on Earth. The tragic fate of a young speech-impaired girl named Yuri (Ohno) — due to die in a traffic accident — is the cause of much debate among the scribes. A celestial tea server, Chasuke (Matsuyama), is subsequently sent to change her destiny and save the day.

“In Japan people tend to view the word ‘unmei,‘ which can be translated as fate or destiny, in a negative light, so I wanted to flip that and make it something more positive,” Sabu says. “I think almost everyone goes through a stage in their life where it feels as though everything has already been mapped out for them, but I believe we can, through the power of human thought, shape our own futures. That is really what I’m trying to say in both the book and movie.”

Sabu certainly appears to have written the script to his own life. A singer and then actor (he is set to appear in Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” next year), he decided to start directing because he was tired of the formulaic, safe approach of many filmmakers. He made his debut in 1996 with “Non-Stop” — the inspiration behind the German cult classic “Run Lola Run.” His early works tended to focus on characters — often yakuza and salarymen — that were clumsy and amateurish, often finding themselves in bizarre situations.

“I like to create stupid movies,” he says. “I don’t want to limit myself to making structured, general films. There are enough people out there doing that already. I believe it’s important to throw the manual away, avoid cliches and come up with something outrageous. It’s what I do with all my projects and ‘Chasuke’s Journey’ is no different.”

“Chasuke’s Journey” is now playing in cinemas nationwide.