When Anshul Chauhan was a child, his family started to wonder if he was someone else. His grandfather had passed away just before he was born, and he showed an unusual attachment to the dead man’s belongings, even insisting on wearing his old clothes.
“Everybody in my family started to say I am the rebirth of my grandfather,” Chauhan recalls. “I was living his memories.”
The experience would provide the Indian director with one of the inspirations for his new Japanese-language film, “Kontora.” Opening in Tokyo this month, after winning multiple awards on the festival circuit, the film is a sumptuous, dreamlike fable that offers a strikingly original perspective on the legacy of Japan’s wartime past.
When her beloved grandfather dies, rural high school student Sora (Wan Marui) comes into possession of his World War II keepsakes, including a pair of aviator goggles and an illustrated diary of the final months of the conflict.
As she sets out to find a buried treasure mentioned in the journal, her path intersects with that of a mute, barefoot man (Hidemasa Mase), who walks backward through the countryside with the fervor of a Buddhist ascetic.
The latter character was inspired by YouTube videos that Chauhan had seen of a man in the English city of Derby who appeared to spend all his time moving in reverse.
“I read that he lost his family in a car accident, and after that, mentally, he didn’t want to go to the future,” the director says. “He wanted to go back to his family in the past, so he started walking backward from that day onward.”
“Kontora” is dedicated to Chauhan’s grandfather — a war veteran himself — and “all the Japanese student soldiers of WWII,” whom Sora learns about from reading her grandpa’s diary.
For Marui, who professes to be a bit of a history buff herself, starring in the film “really felt like fate.” It turned out to be educational, too.
“He knows even more about the war in Japan than Japanese people do,” she says of Chauhan.
“Kontora” grew out of an earlier project that the director had developed about a wartime military academy in Japan, which drew on his own memories of going to military school in India. But after he’d written the script, his producers backed out, deeming the subject too sensitive. Not surprisingly, the whole experience left him “pissed off.”
“I was just angry about everything — the filmmaking community and all,” he says.
Chauhan originally moved to Japan in 2011 to work as an animator (his resume includes “Tron: Uprising” and “Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV”). After an ill-fated attempt to make a live-action film in India, he founded a production company in Tokyo, Kowatanda Films, with his wife, producer and translator Mina Moteki.
His debut feature, “Bad Poetry Tokyo” (2018), was considerably more accomplished than most first-time indie efforts. Yet he struggled to find a distributor in Japan, only succeeding after he started approaching theaters directly.
Speaking to The Japan Times last year, after the film’s belated release, he voiced his frustration at the unwillingness of some industry gatekeepers — including a certain well-known Tokyo festival — to recognize his movies as Japanese.
“It’s not easy to get accepted,” he says.
“I think there’s an element of Japanese people wanting to put a fence around themselves,” Marui adds. “They think they can’t compete creatively with people from overseas, so they try to keep the talented ones at a bit of a distance.”
Chauhan didn’t make any attempt to endear himself with his second feature. “Kontora” runs to nearly 2½ hours — drawing comparison to indie-auteur epics such as Momoko Ando’s “0.5mm” (2014) and Tetsuichiro Tsuta’s “The Tale of Iya” (2013) — and is shot in monochrome, another commercial no-no.
“I think that it’s every director’s fantasy to make a black-and-white film,” he says. “And honestly, I thought nobody would watch this film, so I made it for myself.”
As with “Bad Poetry Tokyo,” which was also lensed by cinematographer Max Golomidov, “Kontora” has a visual finesse that leaves you wondering why more Japanese indie flicks can’t look this good. Impressively, it was shot in just 10 days, which was the most time that Golomidov could take off from his job as a film colorist in Tokyo.
“Actually, nine days,” Chauhan clarifies. “The last day was only one scene.”
The director doesn’t claim to be fluent in Japanese: He originally wrote the script in English, and had interpreters on set. However, he and Marui seem to have figured out how to communicate with each other just fine.
“There were translators, but during the shoot I gradually started to understand what he was saying — through body language and stuff,” she says.
Out of necessity, many sequences were only filmed once, and with minimal cuts. Chauhan didn’t refer to the script while shooting, and encouraged his cast to ad lib — which didn’t always come naturally to them.
“As a director, I have to manipulate situations to bring them into a mood, and throw them into this zone where they don’t have an escape, and they have to fight out of it,” he says.
“It meant the emotions that came out were really real,” Marui says. “I’d surprise myself, again and again.”
Chauhan mentions a scene toward the end of the film, in which Sora starts taking out her anger on Mase’s character: “I told her: ‘Right at this moment, forget about Sora. You are Wan now, from Osaka. You are a yankī (delinquent) from Osaka — behave like her.’ I told her that exact line! Then suddenly she felt comfortable.”
The director also imposed more onerous demands on his performers. Mase had to run along country roads barefoot in early December (albeit with tape stuck to his soles), and in one scene the actors take turns trying to dunk each other in a frigid river.
“I thought he was trying to kill us!” Marui says with a laugh.
Chauhan had written “Kontora” with the actress in mind — despite the fact they’d never worked together — after auditioning her for a different project. The film is Marui’s first lead role, while Mase is making his screen debut, having been cast on the strength of his artistic talents rather than his acting experience (the illustrations in the grandfather’s diary are all his).
“I get this vibe from actors: I just feel like they are right for this part,” Chauhan says. “It’s just about trusting each other.”
His cast had to maintain that trust until they came together to watch a rough cut of “Kontora” in Tokyo, many months after shooting wrapped. Marui recalls that she spent much of the screening in tears.
“It was a great moment, because while shooting everybody hates him, you know?” interjects Moteki, who’s been sitting in on the interview and translating for Marui.
“Literally hates me,” Chauhan says.
“And at the screening, everybody thanks him,” Moteki continues, laughing. “They’re like, ‘Thank you for making this film.’”
“Kontora” opens at K’s Cinema in Tokyo on March 20, followed by select theaters nationwide. All screenings are with English subtitles. For more information, visit kowatanda.com/kontora.
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