Some actors are a little reluctant to take on the role of a despised killer in a high-profile film. Not Dean Fujioka.
The 33-year-old native of Fukushima Prefecture has carved out a successful acting and modeling career in Taiwan over the past decade or so, using his physical attributes and fluency in three languages to earn appearances in a string of television dramas and movies. His busy production schedule has even kept him from spending much time in his homeland, and so when he received an invitation in April 2011 to portray Tatsuya Ichihashi in a biopic based on the convicted killer’s book, Fujioka wasn’t even aware of the details of the case.
“Everyone warned me about the risks associated with playing the part,” Fujioka told The Japan Times On Sunday, “especially the influence it might have on my modeling career.”
In 2011, the Chiba District Court sentenced Ichihashi to life in prison for killing Lindsay Ann Hawker, 22, in March 2007. After the killing, he went of the run for more than 2½ years, working in temporary jobs in Osaka and Okinawa. He was apprehended by the police only 17 months before Fujioka received the acting offer.
In addition to the impact such a controversial movie could have on his career, Fujioka was also mindful that he had yet to work in Japan. Despite such potential pitfalls, he chose not only to accept the role but to direct the movie and compose the theme song as well. He dwelled on the decision for six months, and only accepted the invitation after a series of exchanges with the film’s producer, Toshiaki Nakazawa. Nakazawa is known for producing the Academy Award-winning 2008 film “Okuribito/ Departures.”
“I was told to view Ichihashi’s escape from a Japanese perspective, but one from the outside looking in on Japan,” Fujioka said. Having spent more than a decade away from his home country, the case shed light on a dark side of Japan that he wanted to capture in the film, he said.
“I am Ichihashi,” which opens in theaters on Saturday, begins at a ferry terminal in Osaka as it follows the final few minutes of Ichihashi’s life on the run. It then jumps back to day one of his escape as the killer flees his apartment in Chiba after a group of policemen prepared to question him about a missing persons report.
The majority of the movie is a somber, low-key glimpse at Ichihashi’s life on the lam. It steers clear of the brutal murder of the young Briton and, instead, focuses on the escape and the mental conflict Ichihashi experienced over the years. This largely remains true to Ichihashi’s own recollection of events, which he published in a book called “Taiho Sareru Made” (“Until I Was Arrested”).
Not surprisingly, the film does not give any insights into why Hawker was slain or how the murder was committed. No scenes of the rape or the strangling of Hawker are included in the 83-minute film, but images of a bathtub being filled with sand and compost soil — in which Ichihashi hid Hawker’s body — are used to symbolize the murder.
“The last thing I wanted to do in the movie was idolize Ichihashi,” Fujioka said. The movie’s production company also stressed that the film is not an attempt to defend Ichihashi or play down his crimes.
The creators of the film did not contact the Hawker family upon launching the project or filming the movie, but the privacy of the victim was taken into consideration and no scenes from the film focuses on the victim or depict Hawker in any disrespectful way, they said.
Ichihashi also refused to meet Fujioka before filming began, but knows that his 31 months on the run from the law has been made into a feature film.
The film’s production company said they were not aware where Ichihashi’s royalties will end up, since his lawyers are not commenting on the topic. The company, meanwhile, said it is not planning to donate any profit from the film to the Hawker family at this point. (The Hawkers have refused to accept royalties from Ichihashi’s book.)
The film came under criticism from detractors almost as soon as details became public, with many saying that not enough time had passed since Hawker’s death and her family and friends were still dealing with their grief.
Fujioka acknowledged he had “complex feelings” regarding the timing of the release, but said he wanted to tackle the project before the tragedy is forgotten.
He also believed Ichihashi’s story has a lesson for us all. In Fujioka’s eyes, Ichihashi is an individual who not only ran from his crimes but one who continuously tried to avoid responsibility. His parents were doctors and Ichihashi never had to work for a living. The killer was clinging on to his comfort zone and continued to protect it — even after murdering an innocent woman, he said.
“Obviously what he did was unacceptable and he should have atoned for his crimes,” Fujioka said. “But I also feel that the weakness within him — the flaw that makes one turn away from real life and avoid taking responsibility — exists in all of us.”
“Taiho Sareru Made/I am Ichihashi” opens in theaters nationwide on Nov. 9. From Nov. 6, the film will be available online via pay-per-view at 1000taku.jp.
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