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Tokyo: Director Takahisa Zeze Talks Historical Importance of Fest Opening Movie, Freedom of Low-Budget Filmmaking

Opening this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival is Takahisa Zeze’s war drama Fragments of the Last Willa tragic yet hopeful tale of a little-known chapter of Russo-Japanese history.

Based on the true story of Hatao Yamamoto (Kazunari Ninomiya), one of the more than half a million Japanese soldiers taken to the Soviet Union after World War II, the film tells of his battle to keep hope alive and fulfill the promise he has made. he made to his wife (Keiko Kitagawa) waiting for his return.

Taken to labor camps after surrendering to the Soviet Army in China, the soldiers and some civilians were put to work for years in Siberia and throughout Stalin’s empire in contravention of multiple international treaties and conventions. Some were not allowed to return home for more than a decade. Estimates of the death toll range from the tens to the hundreds of thousands; full records are not available.

“I was born in 1960, four years after the last groups were repatriated to Japan, so even though I knew Japanese soldiers had been taken to Siberia, I didn’t know much about it until I read the book about the film. based on,” explains Zeze, who recalls a childhood hit song of hers about a mother longing for her child to return to the harbor where the ships bringing captives home docked.

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Zeze forged his directorial career on Pink Eiga, soft erotic theatrical features that gave directors great artistic freedom. Many of his productions from that time and his later art films featured immigrants and alienated people and visitors from other places. The topics in Fragments of the Last Will of people crossing borders into another country, and then being forced to travel even further to foreign lands, so it resonated with Zeze.

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“I visited Okinoshima, the island off the coast of Shimane where Hatao Yamamoto grew up. It was once where criminals and others were exiled. It feels like a place at the ends of the earth,” explains Zeze. “His life was somehow like that of an immigrant.”

'Fragments of the last will'

‘Fragments of the last will’

courtesy of the Tokyo International Film Festival

With memories of war inevitably fading in Japan, the director believes films that make people reflect on these events in the nation’s history are more vital than ever.

“The Japanese now only know peacetime, but we have to remember that there are conflicts all over the world, including the one between Russia and Ukraine,” Zeze suggests.

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The director adds that having a film of his like this selected to open the Tokyo festival is a source of joy and pride, and something he could never have imagined as a young erotica director.

Zeze’s auteur films, and even his Pink Eiga, never shied away from controversy, they were known for tackling political themes, something rarely found in Japan’s mainstream productions.

“The general goal of Japanese movies is to get as many people to see them as possible, so political issues are difficult because politics divides the public,” says Zeze. “And most major movies in Japan are made by production committees that are made up of people from various companies with different opinions that need to be taken into account, so you inevitably end up with vanilla products.”

“But Japan is where we live and make a living in the movie business, so that’s the situation we’re facing,” adds Zeze with a laugh.

His next film, based on a novel, is a boxing story starring Koji Sato and Ryusei Yokohama as a veteran trainer and his boxing protégé.

On the question of whether he would consider doing another Pink Eiga if the opportunity presented itself, Zeze points out that there are hardly any such movies made now and there are hardly any theaters left that used to show them.

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“But I would be interested in doing another low-budget movie where I would have the same kind of freedom that we had with Pink Eiga,” he says.

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