Born in Osaka in 1958, Junji Sakamoto belongs to a generation of Japanese directors who carved out independent paths in the industry, outside the then-defunct studio system. His feature debut, the 1989 boxing film “Knockout,” won a shelf of domestic prizes, including the Blue Ribbon Award for best film. He became known for male-centered action flicks and thrillers, such as the 2000 gangster epic “Another Battle.”
But Sakamoto has also often delved into controversial topics. One example is 2008’s “Children of the Dark,” a drama about child trafficking in Thailand based on actual cases. And he has won kudos for his collaborations with celebrated stage actress Naomi Fujiyama: the 2000 drama “Face” and the 2016 comedy/fantasy “Danchi.”
In “Another World,” which screens in competition at the 31st Tokyo International Film Festival, Sakamoto is again exploring new territory, with a story of male friendship in a small rural town, based on his original script.
His hero, Koh (Goro Inagaki), makes high-quality charcoal for the restaurant trade but keeps his distance from his hard-working wife (Chizuru Ikewaki) and rebellious teenage son — standard behavior for a middle-aged male in a Japanese drama. More unusually, he takes only a perfunctory interest in his labor-intensive craft, which he learned from his now-deceased father.
Koh relieves his stress by drinking and carousing with longtime pal Mitsuhiko (Kiyohiko Shibukawa). An easygoing type, Mitsuhiko also speaks his mind, scolding Koh for his indifference to his son.
But the story’s catalyst is Eisuke (Hiroki Hasegawa), another of Koh’s childhood friends, who returns to town after a long stint in the Self-Defense Forces. His reunion with Koh stirs old memories and opens old wounds.
“It’s the first film of mine to focus on the locals in a small town, in this case former classmates,” Sakamoto tells The Japan Times.
The theme came to him in the course of filming in five foreign countries, most recently in Cuba for the 2017 biopic “Ernesto.”
“On those locations I would think about the world, not just the tiny things affecting Japan,” he explains. “But in a corner of my mind I also wanted to make a film about the people of a small town in Japan.”
In developing that film, he adds, he wrote synopsis after synopsis, script after script.
“I have a lot (of scripts) stockpiled that I was unable to film,” he says, adding that he finally settled on one he had written four years earlier about reuniting classmates. “I rewrote it thinking of the actors I wanted: Goro Inagaki and Hiroki Hasegawa.”
Inagaki is a former member of the mega-group SMAP, but his pop star image, Sakamoto insists, posed no problems.
“After about 20 seconds the audience will forget about SMAP,” he says. “That’s what I hope, anyway. When you actually meet him you find he has something very simple about him, something separate from the flashy image you see on TV. That’s what I used in the film.”
Sakamoto also mixed in elements of his own autobiography. “My junior high school days were really interesting and I got hints for the film from how I played, how I worried and how I related to my father back then.”
He is quick to add, though, that the film “is different from my own life,” especially in its focus on the current state of his near 40-something protagonists.
“Time has passed since they were having fun in junior high school and now they have their own separate lives,” he says. “Then a classmate, Eisuke, shows up after being away a long time. He thinks he can reboot their old relationships, but it’s not so easy — that’s the story.”
Eisuke’s time in the SDF has also changed him in ways he cannot easily communicate — or recover from.
“I did some research and learned that that a lot of (SDF personnel) commit suicide within one year of enlisting,” Sakamoto says. “And a lot of them do it after coming back to Japan from a foreign posting, but most Japanese don’t know that. I wanted to touch on that reality in the film.”
Eisuke doesn’t kill himself, but he shares problems common to returning soldiers, including an inability to get along with his family.
“He’s worried that his unstable mental condition will surface,” Sakamoto says.
I tell him that there aren’t many Japanese directors who would insert this sort of politically sensitive storyline into a drama about family and friendship.
“I don’t know about other directors, but when I make a movie I make it of its era, about Japan as it is now,” he replies.
One example he cites is 2002’s “KT,” his political drama about the 1973 Korean CIA kidnapping of opposition politician Kim Dae-jung from a Tokyo hotel. “That was the time when Japan and South Korea were co-hosting the World Cup,” he says. “I didn’t want young Japanese people to shake hands and party with South Koreans without knowing the history of the two countries. So I poured cold water on the World Cup just as everyone was getting excited,” he says with a laugh.
Sakamoto doesn’t see himself as carrying on a one-man crusade either, though.
“I’m turning 60,” he says with a rueful smile. “I’m getting to be an old man, so I’d like young people to step up and carry on — otherwise nothing can be done.”
The 31st Tokyo International Film Festival takes place between Oct. 25 and Nov. 3 at various locations in Minato Ward, Tokyo. For more information on screenings and events, visit 2018.tiff-jp.net.