If you were a Shibuya regular 20 years ago, chances are you would have seen, or even made contact with, Kohki Hasei. Fresh from an Okayama high school, he came to seek his fortune on the streets of the capital. The first job he landed was selling rings and Zippo lighters on Center Gai street.
“I was just a punk kid,” Hasei tells The Japan Times. “I really didn’t know what to do with my life, apart from getting by and finding my own thing, whatever that may have been.”
Getting by was hard on a street vendor’s pay. One day, however, in a twist of fate that most people can only dream of, one of Hasei’s customers turned out to be a TBS employee.
“He told me to get out of Shibuya and get a real job,” he says. “He offered me a role as an assistant director even though I didn’t know the first thing about working in television.”
Hasei soon found himself in a TV studio doing 20-hour work days, but says he loved the “exhilaration of being part of a team and creating something that would matter to people.”
He used what spare time he had to learn video editing and was soon making short movies cobbled together from discarded footage.
“At this time I was essentially living at the company, or crashing at a friend’s place,” he recalls. “I didn’t think there was anything wrong with that, but then someone told me I had to become an adult. And I thought, ‘Yeah, OK … but how do I do that?”
Now 42, Hasei has just released his first feature film in Japan, “Blanka” (Japanese title: “Blanka to Gita Hiki”). It’s a poignant story of a 10-year-old girl named Blanka (Cydel Gabutero) who lives in a cardboard box in a Manila alleyway. Hasei says he drew on his own experiences to make the film.
“It took me a while to figure out that having a home doesn’t necessarily make you an adult,” he says. “It’s more about cultivating a mindset that makes you care about the world you and other people live in.”
Almost all of the project was carried out in the Philippines, from the auditions to the filming, and apart from Gabutero, pretty much everyone in the cast was recruited off the streets. Post-production was done in South Korea.
“It was a great time for me, because I don’t speak much Tagalog or Korean and yet I managed to have an excellent rapport with everyone on my team,” Hasei says. “And though there were a lot of Japanese on the staff, we all tried to avoid speaking in our own language as much as possible. I personally wanted to get things done on zero Japanese.”
Did he ever think about making a Japanese film?
“To be honest, it never crossed my mind,” Hasei says. “I feel that the story of the street kids in the Philippines is my turf. I know it, and can make something out of it, on my own terms. I lack the same knowledge about Japanese society.”
Hasei is now based in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward but for many years he drifted in and out of “slum towns all over the world.” It was intentional. He would get a part-time job in Tokyo and work for a few months before taking off with a backpack. Since the age of 28, he has spent almost every Christmas among the children living in and around the so-called Smokey Mountain of Manila, an infamous landfill that has long been a symbol of the city’s rabid poverty and tragic income inequality.
“I love those kids,” Hasei says. “Spending time with them has given me a positive outlook on the experience of growing up poor and never having much. It’s easy to just turn your face away from street kids and poverty but I feel that wealth doesn’t make you exempt from life’s problems, you just have a different set of problems, that’s all. And in many instances, poor kids are friendlier, nicer and easier to get along with. They have such hope for themselves, and an amazingly positive vibe. I’ve always tried to capture that energy and re-create it on screen.”
In “Blanka,” the main character survives by pickpocketing and other forms of theft, but she dreams of saving enough money so she can “buy” a mother to take care of her. She learns some hard lessons on the journey to acquiring a mom (one candidate turns out to be a sex trafficker), but Blanka also makes friends with a blind guitar player named Peter (Peter Millari), who lives hand-to-mouth but sincerely cares about the girl’s well-being.
“It’s not a rags-to-riches story,” Hasei says with a laugh. “It’s about choosing to be strong and wearing the rags with pride.”
Since 2009 the director has released two short films about street children in the Philippines. For “Blanka” he was able to receive financial assistance from the Venice International Film Festival after receiving a tip from his good friend Emir Kusturica, a Serbian filmmaker best known in the West for “Black Cat, White Cat” (1998).
“I didn’t know that the Venice film festival even funded film projects until Emir introduced me to a producer involved with it,” he says. “The great thing about this system is that no one cared about my past or career resume. All that was required of me was an outline of the film written on one sheet of paper, and one short film that I had already made. That was it.”
Asked if other Japanese filmmakers with little or no experience could go the same route, Hasei believes it’s a good move.
“Actually, I think this is the best way to go for everyone wanting to make films. They need to have two key things: a story with universal appeal, and the willingness to communicate with people outside Japan.”
Hasei says that he’s a bit nervous about audience reaction to “Blanka” here at home.
“Everything has a price here, and it’s such a capitalist economy. Maybe some people wouldn’t get why Blanka makes the choice that she does. But her story is worth sharing.”
“Blanka” is now playing in cinemas across the country. For more information, visit www.transformer.co.jp/m/blanka.