Iranian director Ida Panahandeh’s fourth feature, “The Nikaidos’ Fall,” took her way beyond her comfort zone. She didn’t speak Japanese nor had she ever visited the country, and yet there she was with a Japanese crew and cast, filming a story about the Japanese family dynamic in the ancient city of Tenri in Nara Prefecture. The move to make “The Nikaidos’ Fall” seems both inspired and audacious, but the director admits she did not have any prior knowledge about Japan.

“Honestly, I should say not deeply,” Panahandeh tells The Japan Times. “The only things I knew very well about Japan were traced back to Japanese films; the masterpieces that were screened by National Iranian Television when I was a child. Later on, when I was a film student, I watched Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu and Masaki Kobayashi’s films again and I was absorbed by their power and uniqueness in telling stories. I could, for the first time, understand what Japanese cinema means.”

The filmmaker adds that in Iran, “Japanese film masters are still so famous and cinephiles know them very well.”

“The Nikaidos’ Fall” charts the not-so-gentle tug of war between an aging matriarch determined to see the family name and seed business continue through a male heir, and her middle-aged son who is being pressured into a loveless marriage to achieve that end. The mother, Haru, played by Kazuko Shirakawa, blends manipulative bossiness and endearing vulnerability — she’s not a monster, but she’s apt to put the family name above all other concerns. The first marriage of her son Tatsuya (Masaya Kato) has failed, triggered by the tragic death of his young son many years ago. Now he’s torn between wanting to please his mother and trying to build his own life, away from the family. Tatsuya sets his hopes on his daughter Yuko (Shizuka Ishibashi) marrying an eligible young man and thus carrying on the Nikaido name.

“The Nikaidos’ Fall” is slow-burning, rife with emotions that threaten to explode before the characters (usually Tatsuya and Yuko) barely curb their impulsiveness for Haru’s sake. Panahandeh’s observations of the Japanese family are at once spot-on and a little out of touch. The Japanese these days are less self-contained or self-controlled and the weight of family is not as heavy as it had been in the past. Here, it’s possible to see the influence of Yasujiro Ozu, whom Panahandeh says “has always been an inspiring filmmaker to me. I adore him. My image of the Japanese family was made from his films.”

And, just like Ozu, Panahandeh was never seen on set without her trusted notebook, in which she made copious notes in Persian.

“It was so intriguing to see Ida at work,” Kato says in a separate interview. “She had pages and pages of notes that she matched up with the Japanese-language screenplay, pondering over each scene and paying special attention to our eyes and expressions. She can’t speak Japanese but she can grasp the ambience of the dialogue and she would often ask us to change one word for something else because she said that it didn’t sound right or didn’t match our facial expressions.”

On working with Panahandeh, Ishibashi recalls auditioning for the part of Yuko over Skype.

“I was sitting at the computer, waiting for Ida to come on and when she did, it was like I was struck by lightning,” she recalls. “She was so cool, and came across as a very strong woman. We discussed some feminist issues and she asked for my opinion regarding the hijab. I got the feeling that being female meant different things to her compared to me. All her life, she’s been thinking about what it meant to be a woman in a Muslim country. I could feel her struggle and the sheer strength of her will. I felt I simply had to work with Ida.”

Panahandeh says that though the language barrier presented some difficulties, it was nothing that she couldn’t handle.

“Making a film is always a difficult challenge,” she says. “It’s like entering a war zone. A filmmaker should always be ready for everything. The Japanese are very good at teamwork and so responsible about their duties. After the shooting was finished, I wished I could bring some of my Japanese colleagues to Iran for my next project!”

She adds that, even more than the language, the cultural differences presented a challenge.

“I was in their country, I wanted to make a film about them and I had to be flexible to understand the whys and hows. I had to penetrate peoples’ lifestyles, and I also had to be careful about Japanese manners and beliefs and not insult someone unwittingly.”

Kato says that he became very aware of Panahandeh’s sensitivity concerning what did and didn’t ring true.

“She would always ask and make notes. That impressed me very much and gave me a chance to think about my own country and what ‘being Japanese’ really means to me,” he says.

Laughing it up: Masaya Kato and Shizuka Ishibashi play a dysfunctional father and daughter in
Laughing it up: Masaya Kato and Shizuka Ishibashi play a dysfunctional father and daughter in ‘The Nikaidos’ Fall.’ | YOSHIAKI MIURA

Kato’s Tatsuya is a complicated character. Having buried a child and seen his marriage break down, He is afraid of making commitments to women. That goes for his mother, his daughter and the woman he has been dating in secret.

“I completely understand Tatsuya,” Panahandeh, says. “He is basically like many other Asian men of his age. I know many Iranian and Turkish men like him. Tatsuya has to carry a heavy burden on his shoulders. He is a father, a son, a boss, a lover and the only one who can continue his family line. These roles are somehow paradoxical — if you want to be a good father, you can’t be a good son, and if you want to be a good lover you may betray your ancestors. I can feel sympathy toward him, respect him and like him.

“He wants to be nice to all of his loved ones but it’s not possible. When you are committed to a traditional family, when you’ve lost your son, then your decisions become very challenging. His relationships with his mother and daughter are overshadowed by these paradoxical roles he has. He loves them truly but also can’t manage his feelings. He is a human being. A man who simply wants to live.”

That’s not always easy in rural Japan, where old family ties are still strong and filial piety is taken for granted. While Tatsuya struggles between personal happiness and filial duty, his daughter Yuko can’t help being frustrated.

“Yuko is a modern Japanese woman who values her freedom and personal identity,” Ishibashi says. “She wants more out of life than just obeying her father and grandmother but she also yearns for Tatsuya’s love and approval. She wants him to be happy, too, without being shackled by the family thing. She also wants her father to see her just as herself. She tries so hard to be closer to her father.

“Yuko actually reminded me of Ida. They are women who just never give up. They’re always struggling against fate and trying to understand the people around them.”

Panahandeh says that being in Japan gave her the chance to reach out to a totally different culture while discovering similarities with her own.

“Regardless of where we live, the borders and countries, as long as we live in Asia, we are the bearers of our ancestors’ traditions and history,” she says. “It’s our responsibility, fate and destiny to be faithful to our past but with open eyes and open minds.”

“The Nikaidos’ Fall” comes out in select cinemas on Jan. 25. For more information, visit www.ldhpictures.co.jp/movie/nikaido-ke-monogatari.

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