Film

Akio Fujimoto trades drama for authenticity in film about the refugee experience

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

Akio Fujimoto’s “Passage of Life,” a drama about the struggles of a Myanmar family in Japan and the troubled return of a mother and her children to Yangon, premiered at last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival before continuing on to win honors and acclaim at more than a dozen festivals around the world.

His success was years in the making. Using mostly nonprofessional actors, Fujimoto shot the film in 2014 and only completed post-production in April 2017.

With its true-to-life drama about the migrant experience in Japan, “Passage of Life” was also a hard sell to local distributors who tend to prefer Japanese films set in exotic locales only if a domestic star is at the center. Luckily for Fujimoto, the film’s production company, E.x.N., took over distribution.

Born in Osaka in 1988, Fujimoto studied filmmaking at Visual Arts College Osaka. In 2012 he directed his first short, “Psychedelic Family,” which traveled widely on the festival circuit. After graduation, he came to Tokyo, where, at restaurants in the Takadanobaba area, he encountered people from Myanmar, many of whom he says “were refugees or applying for refugee status.” In his film, the father also applies for refugee status — and is rejected.

“I included that because the family that was my model had that problem, but I never considered the film to be an introduction to the migrant issue,” Fujimoto says. “It’s a family drama.”

It is also very much the story of 7-year-old Kaung, the elder of the family’s two kids. Identifying as Japanese, he resents his mother’s decision to bring him and his younger brother to stay with her relatives in Yangon. He eventually runs away with the intention of taking a plane back to Japan. For a day and night he wanders the streets, has adventures and comes to feel that his new home might not be so bad after all.

“My original motivation in writing the screenplay was the thought of how a child would overcome that sort of problem,” Fujimoto says. “That’s what I wanted to portray at first, but I didn’t know anything about Kaung’s family relationships. I also sensed that issues at home were his main source of motivation. So to write about the before and after (of his adventure), I had to write about the boy and his mother and father.”

The story, I tell Fujimoto, reminds me of “Moving,” Shinji Somai’s 1993 masterpiece about a girl who runs away from her divorced parents into a forest and has experiences that, in the course of a night, profoundly change her. Fujimoto tells me, apologetically, that he hasn’t seen it.

“I’m glad I didn’t see it before I shot the film, though,” he says, adding with a laugh, “If I had, I’d have been in trouble.”

The film’s script is a mix of true stories and Fujimoto’s own experience.

“That’s especially true of the scenes with the kids,” he explains. “I had Kaung do some of the same things I did as a boy. One example is the scene of Kaung tearing his own clothes in anger and frustration. I actually did that myself.”

The director opted for these reality-based scenes because he didn’t want the film to “feel like a typical drama.”

“I was after realism,” he says. “If I had amped up the drama to make it more ‘movie-like,’ my encounter with the people behind the true stories would have lost all meaning.”

This pursuit of realism extended to his camera as well. Fujimoto used long takes to give the action more of a documentary feel.

“During the shoot, I was really conscious of that, thinking how to capture the reality of a scene with the camera,” he says.

However, he allowed for one significant exception in his pursuit of authenticity: The mother and her two sons were an actual family unit, but the father was played by an outsider since the real father chose not to participate.

“Fortunately, that turned out well,” Fujimoto says. “In the story there’s a distance between the father and the mother, you don’t see a lot of love between the two of them. That would have been harder to convey with the real father.”

Fujimoto’s intention was make a film that had universal meaning, not just one that would focus on the situation of Japan’s Myanmar community.

“That was the aim of our entire team, the producer and everyone,” he says. “I wanted to expand the story in various directions, to point out that this family’s problems could also happen to families outside of Myanmar — in the Philippines or Indonesia for example.”

“Passage of Life” started filming before migrant issues began to dominate the headlines in Europe and North America, but it still succeeds in showing the kinds of bureaucratic hurdles they face. Immigration officials hound the father, with one even telling him to give up on trying to win refugee status and return home. Fujimoto says the family’s actual father faced the exact same situation. “It depressed him,” he adds.

Despite the heavy subject matter, Fujimoto says the experience of creating the film “has been really positive.”

“If it had been just up to me I wouldn’t have made the film, but the producer asked me to come and shoot in Myanmar — that was the start,” he says. “I didn’t even know where Myanmar was. Through this film I’ve made, however, I now feel like I have a strong relationship with another country.”