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Friday, Oct. 29, 2010

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Shooting stars: Masahiko Tsugawa, Hiromi Nagasaku and Toru Masuoka enact a scene from "Wakiyaku Monogatari (Cast Me if You Can)," the feature film debut by Atsushi Ogata. © DREAM ON PRODUCTIONS

ENTERTAINMENT SPOTLIGHT

Playing it for laughs the understated way

New director forges a fresh direction in Japanese comedy


Staff writer

It is 3 p.m. in a quiet, residential neighborhood in Tokyo. A lady in a red dress stands by the side of a narrow street in front of a house, her hair held back and her face shielded from the sun by a woman holding a parasol.

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Atsushi Ogata MANAKO YAMAGUCHI PHOTO

A man wearing a baseball cap says, "Honban desu!"

The call is repeated by some of the 40 or so people gathered outside the house and a hush falls upon the crowd.

Suddenly, a strong gust of wind blows, causing another man to call for a delay. After half a minute, the wind grows calm, and the man with the baseball cap reminds everyone that what follows is the next take, the real thing: "Honban desu!"

Another voice speaks, in English: "Rolling . . . action!"

The voice is that of Atsushi Ogata, directing his first feature-length film, "Wakiyaku Monogatari" (literally, the tale of the supporting actor), known internationally as "Cast Me if You Can."

Ogata is slightly built, ponytailed and talks quickly with a New York accent peppered by a self-conscious chuckle. He also wrote the script for and has a small acting role in the film, which he describes as a "socially conscious comedy." It tells the story of Hiroshi, a supporting actor in a TV police drama who finally lands a leading role in a movie.

The film, in Japanese with English subtitles at all showings in Tokyo and at select venues elsewhere, started its theatrical run in Japan on Oct. 23. During that first visit to the set on a windy day in July 2009, I found that, whatever the film's box office success will be, "Wakiyaku Monogatari" may well be remembered in the future for pioneering a new way of making Japanese cinema.

Though made by a Japanese director with a mainly Japanese cast and crew, the sensibilities and style are unlike contemporary Japanese films. "Recent films are just too slow and depressing, and I don't really see the point of them," Ogata says, adding that there is a dearth of witty comedies in Japanese cinema, which are "usually kind of more slapstick."

Masahiko Tsugawa, 70, the most famous star involved in "Wakiyaku Monogatari," has acted in more than 150 films and has also directed, following in the footsteps of his famous cinematic family, including his grandfather Shozo Makino, known as the "father of Japanese film."

"Though Atsushi is a new director, he is able to direct actors, to tell them not to overact," Tsugawa says. In Japan, "actors are usually told to act more. When you're told to hold back, it's very refreshing."

Tsugawa portrays a famous playwright whose success towers over his son, Hiroshi, played by Toru Masuoka. Masuoka, 54, in his first-ever leading role in a feature-length film, was the first choice to play Hiroshi, having worked with Ogata while having had a productive career as a supporting actor.

"Working on this film gave me the opportunity to think about how film can be and should be," Masuoka says. "This film has no particular accident or big incident, nobody has an illness — it's a comedy that very carefully follows the inside shifts in each character. Maybe this is what cinema should be.

"It reminded me that a big budget doesn't necessarily make a good film. It's all about the idea the director has and the crew he works with that can make a good film. That's the meaning of independent filmmaking."

How it all came together starts with Ogata's background.

Born in Japan, Ogata and his sister moved to New York when Ogata was 13 because of their parents' work. His mother, Sadako, is a former diplomat to the United Nations who later became the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and is the president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency. His father, Shijuro, is a former deputy governor for international relations of the Bank of Japan. However, Ogata would rather not be recognized for being the son of famous parents but for being an artist, something with which the protagonist of "Wakiyaku Monogatari" also struggles.

After graduating from Harvard University, Ogata attended the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Later, working in Europe, mostly in Holland, creating videos and writing scripts, he started acting on TV, in his own performance videos and in other people's works.

However, it was the release in 2006 of the 15-minute short film "Furochoju," known internationally as "Eternally Yours," which he wrote and directed, that allowed Ogata to make "Wakiyaku Monogatari." Family circumstances meant Ogata was spending more time in Japan, so he made the film, about a con man and an elderly woman, using Japanese actors for the first time — including Masuoka.

After writing the English subtitles himself, Ogata entered "Furochoju" in festivals overseas. The first to accept it was the prestigious New Directors/New Films festival in March 2007 in New York. It was the only Japanese entry that year, gaining attention from local Japanese-language media.

"(Then) I started writing (a feature-length script) and I had this image of Masuoka-san in a police uniform," Ogata says. "So I was writing it quite organically. The father-son relationship is a little like my own relationship with my father."

However, the first drafts "were all over the place," Ogata says.

With a slimmed-down script, New York film restoration company Cineric came on board as producers, via father-son team Balazs and Eric Nyari. Eriko Miyagawa, who had worked on "Kill Bill: Vol. 1" and "Lost in Translation," also became a producer. Ogata then tried to get a Japanese production company to join them.

"But in Japan, most of the main studios have not (recently) taken original scripts from new filmmakers. They take existing popular novels and existing popular manga and try to market it, combine it with TV celebrities who are not particularly good actors — it's just so commercial," Ogata says.

So Ogata and the producers raised the money to make and publicize "Wakiyaku Monogatari" by holding fundraising screenings of "Furochoju" (some jointly sponsored by the Yale Club of Japan and the Harvard Club of Japan, Ogata's alma mater), and applying to the Agency for Cultural Affairs for assistance, ultimately raising a budget of around $1 million.

In the meantime, work continued on polishing the script. "Initially, I was writing the script in English," Ogata says, so he had to translate it. Then there was the problem that the characters had to sound like real Japanese people talking, but Ogata's translations sounded more like New Yorkers.

Ogata found help in Akane Shiratori, a board member of the Japan Screenwriters Association whom he met at a screening of "Furochoju." Ogata says that Shiratori got more interested and involved in the project, going from script editor to co-scriptwriter to casting director.

"We had Masuoka-san, but we couldn't find anyone who would fit Aya," Ogata says, referring to the lady in red, the lead female role. "Most Japanese pop idol-type actresses, in their early 20s, who are very popular, they're really not good actresses. They look too much like girls, and we really wanted somebody for Aya who's somewhere between a girl and a woman. So, Shiratori-san had this great idea to cast Hiromi Nagasaku."

Shiratori also suggested that Tsugawa might be willing to play the father character. "She had worked with him since he was 16. So basically through her contacts we got those (roles filled)."

The film's veteran makeup artist, Nana Kozakai, also took the script to three-time Japanese Academy Best Actress winner Keiko Matsuzaka. Ten days later, she joined the cast.

After completing the film in late 2009, Ogata took it to several festivals, with its world premiere in June at the Shanghai International Film Festival, where it was in competition for the Asia New Talent Award.

"Wakiyaku Monogatari" contains comic elements and touching moments while subtly grappling with societal issues in families and in society at large.

"You try to have (a film) that says something about the society," Ogata says. "Also, one of the themes in this film is that we have three generations of people. To make a film that gives hope to people, that shows them connecting with each other, this is one of the things that I'm trying to do with the film, something that hopefully gives encouragement and hope to society as well.

"It might also make people laugh about their own life — in Japan, there are so many people committing suicide each day; the society's so fixed, it's not mobile; everybody's so age-conscious; the expectations. (But) you can actually have, like, a fun life; you can actually laugh at yourself, laugh at your misery.

"Most people are not playing leading roles: They're marginalized," Ogata adds. "It's your life: You have to take charge and make it better."

"Wakiyaku Monogatari (Cast Me if You Can)" is now playing with English subtitles at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho in Tokyo and other cities. See www.wakiyakuthemovie.com for detailed listings.

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