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Japanese Film Festival 2017 in Malaysia Takumi Saitoh

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Actor and filmmaker Takumi Saitoh joined the opening event of the Japanese Film Festival 2017, held on 5 September in Malaysia’s capital city of Kuala Lumpur, as a special guest. As well as attending the opening ceremony, Saitoh appeared at a special screening event of blank13, the first feature film he has directed, delighting the many fans in attendance. After the event, we spoke to Saitoh about his impressions of the event and his feelings about the film.

Incidents occurring in a foreign country can eventually become your own story.


―What was it like participating in the Japanese Film Festival this year?

There was such a great lineup of films, covering this year’s top Japanese movies as well as some lesser-known titles. As a big film fan myself, I was honestly really excited to see so many ‘film buff’ works being shown, including blank13.

―There was a huge audience at the venue!

I couldn’t really tell how many of them were Japanese, and how many were Malaysian locals, but I felt a great sense of “closeness”. I’d see someone who looked Malaysian but then they’d start speaking fluent Japanese, and vice versa. I realised Japan and Malaysia are really quite similar– a Westerner looking at such a scene from the outside might not be able to tell the difference. At the blank13 Q&A session some Malaysian people asked me questions in Japanese, which really impressed me.

―Some people remarked that they’d had similar experiences to those shown in your film.

The idea that incidents occurring in a foreign country can eventually become your own personal story is something that has made a great impression on me through film. When creating something, this is what I aim for. For blank13, I chose the traditional and original setting of a Japanese funeral as backdrop, so it made my staff and me so delighted to hear directly from the viewers that they felt that way about the film.

―In blank13 there is a change in aspect halfway through the film. Was this intentional?

Yes, it was. It’s kind of like eating a dish that changes flavour – stories have various facets so I wanted to see lots of different emotions emerge. Of course a person dying evokes sadness, but when I read the story the film was based on, I felt that looking at death from other angles can bring about a colour and richness, when we think about the life that person lived. The people left behind by the father in the film may want to judge whether he was happy or not, but in the original, Koji Hashimoto feels so strongly that the parent and child bond can never be broken, no matter what happens. I knew that I definitely wanted to portray this in the film. For most children, what sticks in their memories about their fathers is not what their fathers did for them, but the emotions and spaces they experienced at particular moments. There is a scene in the film where the main character plays catch with his father, and I think the image of him throwing the ball to his dad must have always stayed in his mind.

In Japan, people tend to think about things within the boundaries of their own country.


―Did you have foreign countries in your mind from the beginning?

There were people involved in the making of this film who were classmates twenty years ago, or who are close friends with each other. People who helped make the movie like Nobuaki Kaneko, who did the music, and the editor and the special modelling staff, we’re all about the same age. I think we were able to make this film because of all these people around me – as professionals in our thirties, we’re now able to take some initiative to get things done. We wouldn’t have been able to do this ten years ago. Interestingly, none of these staff had a specific mentor. It was my first feature film too. None of us had set ideas about how the film “must” be, so we just had to share our instincts with each other. I believe there is great value in the fact that a group of people from the same generation worked in this way to create this film together.

―Did you have foreign countries in your mind from the beginning?

I believe directors like Naomi Kawase and Sion Sono get their initial ideas from a world beyond the borders of Japan. In China, some filmmakers create films with foreign investment even if they won’t be able to show the film in their country – this is something we could think about for Japan as well. We’re living in a time when anyone can access information, and as the times change, everyone knows what the best possible option is. So I think it’s only natural that we keep that in view. I think in Japan we tend to think about things within the boundaries of our own country, but I do believe we’ve reached a turning point. So I feel that someone like me should lead the way for this.

I want audiences to think of the screen as a “window” to modern Japan.


―As a filmmaker, what is it like to be involved in film festivals both in Japan and overseas?

It might sound obvious, but having your film shown in a theatre is the goal for filmmakers, as you want people to see what you’ve created. But another goal we have is to let our films “spread their wings” in film festivals around the world for that short period of time between their completion and cinema release – this is like a special treat for us. With a film you are both putting on a show and providing a form of leisure, so it makes me so happy when we collaborate with film festivals and the synergy just takes off. I also want to have my film shown for as long as possible, so as many people as possible can see it. Of course, sales are important, but I place even higher priority on creating films that will be loved for a long time.

―There are a lot of Japanese film fans around the world.

Events like the Japanese Film Festival are a great chance for people in other countries to get to know Japan. I feel connected to other countries when I watch films from those nations, and notice the similarities and differences to myself. It makes me really happy as a filmmaker that people have the opportunity to experience the Japan of today by looking through the “window” of the movie screen. I hope this continues to grow. And at the same time, in this case, Japanese people need to take in the Malaysian culture, which helps to build friendly relations between our countries. I hope that I can use this film festival as a catalyst to convey Malaysia to others, in whatever way I can.

◆Takumi Saitoh profile

Born in Tokyo on 22 August, 1981. Works as an actor and filmmaker. Filmography highlights: For Love’s Sake, The Ninja War of Torakage, Danchi, Hirugao, etc. He was awarded Best Director in the Asian New Talent category at the 20th Shanghai International Film Festival in 2017 for blank13, the first feature film he directed. He also initiated, plans, and runs a mobile theatre project called “cinéma bird”, which brings movies to children in regions with little opportunity to experience film.

◆Film information

Title: blank 13
Director: Takumi Saitoh
Original author: Koji Hashimoto
Script: Mitsutoshi Saijo
Music: Nobuaki Kaneko
Starring: Issey Takahashi, Takumi Saitoh, Jiro Sato, Lily Franky

blank13 is based on the true story of a family whose father suddenly disappeared 13 years ago. Now that the father has died, his family tries to fill in the blanks from this period of absence.
A father disappears without a trace, and his location is uncovered 13 years later. But three months later – before his family has a chance to make up for lost time – he is taken from them again, passing away from cancer. The family thought they would never get back the 13-year blank from when he was gone, but by hearing the mourners at his funeral tell their stories about him, this empty period begins to fill up, and the truth they never knew about their father is revealed…

■Japanese Film Festival 2017 Outline

【Name】Japanese Film Festival 2017
【Presented by】The Japan Foundation Kuala Lumpur, Cultural Affairs Department
【Cities】Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Kuching, Kota Kinabalu (seven venues in four cities)
【Held from】Tuesday 5 September to Sunday 1 October, 2017
【Films shown】14