When I met Shinobu Yaguchi at a Chicago sushi restaurant on March 1, I made my usual mistake with well-known directors: mention that I had interviewed him before. He, understandably, blanked, since the interview was 20 years ago for his 1997 indie comedy “My Secret Cache” (“Himitsu no Hanazono”)
But if I’d had one-to-ones with him about other films of his I’d reviewed for this newspaper, starting with his 1993 feature debut “Down the Drain” (“Hadashi no Pikunikku”) and continuing with his 2001 smash “Waterboys,” his response may well have been the same. In general, journalists begin to dissolve in a director’s mind the moment they exit the room. After about five introductions, if you’re lucky, you begin to stick.
This time, though, I was going to present “Survival Family,” Yaguchi’s latest comedy about the journey of a Tokyo family across Japan after the world’s electricity grid goes down, at Asian Pop-Up Cinema, a festival founded by Sophia Wong Boccio, a longtime friend and colleague.
The “Pop-Up” of the name points to the festival’s unusual scheduling: The 18 contemporary Asian films of its fourth season would unspool over two months, from March 1 to May 3, at various venues. As the season’s premiere, “Survival Family” would play at the largest: AMC River East 21, a multiplex in downtown Chicago.
With his trademark glasses, short hair and serious air, Yaguchi looked more the nerdy scientist than the maker of hit commercial comedies, all of which he has scripted, mostly from his original ideas. But the full-house crowd laughed in the right places and gave Yaguchi a big round of applause as he came down to the front of the theater for our Q&A session.
The film, however, was more than just a gag fest. Inspired by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and the following tsunami and reactor meltdowns that devastated the Tohoku region and caused major disruptions in Tokyo, the film presents a realistically chaotic country, from panicked crowds to trash-strewn highways — and all with no CGI assists whatsoever.
This emphasis on the analog, as well as the film’s warning against over-reliance on the digital, Yaguchi told me, came from his own deep techno-skepticism (or, given his long-standing aversion to smartphones and other digital gadgets, phobia).
“Use of CGI in films is growing so much that it’s becoming hard to find a film without it,” he said. “The audience has gradually started to notice and now they watch a film with a feeling of security, thinking: ‘That’s not really happening. The people are in no danger.’ ”
With “Survival Family,” he explained, he wanted to make something “simple and honest.” That is, an “anti-CGI movie.”
“The family really goes to the places (in the film),” he said. “They really ride their bicycles on a highway, catch fish, and build a raft and cross a river on it. They ride in a real steam locomotive.”
This old-school approach to shooting the family’s arduous journey to Kagoshima, where the wife’s father (Akira Emoto) has a farm, was also hard on the cast, Yaguchi admits, adding, “When their faces look as though they’re suffering, they really are. But I wanted the film to reach the audience, so that’s the way I had to do it.”
During the 2½-month-long shoot — longer than usual for even commercial Japanese films — Yaguchi and his staff traveled to several locations across Japan. Some scenes, though, such as one of a mass exodus on a major highway, weren’t as labor-intensive to set up and film as they looked.
“That freeway scene only took one day. We had a truck full of trash following the shoot. It would dump the trash on the location and we would film it. We caused a lot of trouble for the local people,” he said with a laugh.
The movie is more than a disaster simulation, however: On their odyssey the family not only learn how to survive, but also become closer and more mutually considerate. This is especially true of the teenage daughter (Wakana Aoi) and son (Yuki Izumisawa), who before the blackout were barely interacting with their housewife mom (Eri Fukatsu) and salaryman dad (Fumiyo Kohinata), let alone with each other. The family’s Kagoshima life of farming, fishing and otherwise living much as their ancestors did makes them and those around them personally happier and generally more likable.
Yaguchi admits that “part of the film’s message” is that the old days were better. “But when the electricity comes back on and the family returns to Tokyo I don’t think they are sad about leaving their country life,” he added.
“Human beings, me included, are foolish. When the convenience of electricity returns, they may go back to their old way of life,” he continued. “But I realize how you could get the impression the family has grown and become a little better than they were at the beginning (of the story).”
The Q&A ended and Yaguchi spent the next half hour outside the theater taking photos with dozens of fans — another sign that the Chicago screening had been a success. Sophia, who had programmed the film partly on my recommendation, was overjoyed with the audience reaction.
“I want to take this film to schools,” she said. “It teaches values people here are losing.”
I thought of Yaguchi’s response to an audience question about his preparation for the film. He explained that he and two staff members had made the family’s trip themselves and had had some of the same experiences.
“We tried battery liquid to see if you could actually drink it,” he told the audience.
The result of that experiment became one of the film’s funnier gags. And an object lesson on the value of doing instead of Googling.