Kumamoto — Film Shoots

It’s raining here again . When I first came to Japan last week from Los Angeles, I thought, “Oh hey rain.” Now the novelty has worn off and like every other person in Japan, I’m griping about the weather.

Anyway, it’s been a busy week. On Tuesday, I went to location scout in a resort town north of Kumamoto called Yamaga. It’s primarily famous for a massive festival it holds in August where over a thousand young women don pink kimonos and strapped golden lanterns to their heads. It used to be stipulated that the participants must be virgins, but in recent years that rule has apparently been quietly dropped. Another attraction is that unlike much of Japan, which looks like a bad stretch of East Berlin meets a bad stretch of Van Nuys, Yamaga has kept much of its original charm — traditional kura buildings line the main streets and a famed kabuki theater has been resorted to its original luster. I was being taken there by Oshima-san, a fellow BIG employee and Yamaga resident, who the previous day matter-of-factly informed me that their were going to shoot a 45 promo bit for the town and that I’d be directing it. In spite of the crappy weather (rain again), we scouted the town and I took notes.

When we got to Hachisendaiza — the kabuki theater — we learned that the local government was holding an anti-bosozoku event. Bosozoku are largely thuggish orange-haired high-school dropouts who annoy everyone with their improbably loud motorbikes, and who like the Hell’s Angels in the States have been associated with all sorts of deviant and criminal behavior. Anyway, we were ushered into the theater toting a bunch of free anti-bosozoku, where I noticed that the audience consisted of a) old people b) cops c) glassy-eyed high school students who were dragged to this event for Their Own Good. The event opened with a Cops-style video of bosozoku terrorizing the streets of Kumamoto. A couple minutes into it, the video feed went out, and the audience was left listening to a cacophony of roaring motorcycling, police sirens, screams, and at least one heart-rending dog yelp with no idea what was going on. We decided that it was a good time to leave.

When I got home, my head throbbed from excessive Japanese-use, so I vegged out in front of the TV. I saw a “rap contest” on one show, which had about as much funk as your average Christmas office party. It would have been better described as a make-the-lyrics-up-as-you-go-along karaoke contest. One memorable contestant simply issued forth a string of rude words set to John Lennon’s Imagine. Ex.: “She’s ugly. Big tits. Fart.” Later on the news, there was a news story where a jilted lover doused his hostess ex-girlfriend with gasoline, and set the entire hostess bar where she worked alight. Parts of downtown Kumamoto still smell a bit acrid. In other news, “The Great Sasuke”, the Mexican-wrestling mask wearing member of the Diet hailing from Iwate prefecture, vehemently denied that he was a male porn star before taking a turn into politics. Who could tell, I thought, he was wearing a mask.

The next day was a rare break in the gloom of the rainy season. Horita-san, my boss, leapt at the opportunity and scheduled a shoot TV commercial for a land development company. After driving hither and yon to collect needed equipment, the employees of BIG along with a cameraman named Yamano (and who was classmates with Miike Takashi at Imamura Shohei‘s film school), gathered in the parking lot of the company’s headquarters. The main task of the day was a time-lapse shot of the building — an over-designed Ando Tadao knock-off — as the sun set. I struggled for most of the shoot to trying fight the haze of brain fatigue and look like I understood what was going on. Overall, the shoot went fine until the area was beset by bats that were hunting for bugs in the adjacent rice fields.

Call time for the next day (Thursday) was at 4:15 am, which considering that I managed to drag myself home for the previous night’s shoot at 10:30 or so at night, was pretty brutal. Bleary-eyed, we all choked down some horribly artificial tasting convenience store sandwiches and prepared for another time-lapse shot of the building as dawn broke. After a few more shots, including one where the camera swept over the employee’s of the company on a crane, we packed up and headed for the hills in search of a lonely stretch of mountain road.

With the camera set up on the yellow line, we waited for the clouds to line up in an aesthetically pleasing fashion. The crew talked at length about the merits of Tora! Tora! Tora! over Pearl Harbor. Horita regaled us with a story about working with Kurosawa. One day, Kurosawa had Horita corral 5,000 extras in full costume for six hours atop Mt. Aso before canceling the day’s shoot because he didn’t like the shape of the clouds. Fortunately, Horita wasn’t as stubborn at that great master, and we wrapped by noon.

On the way back from shoot, we ate the curiously named Ringer Hut, a sit-down fast-food establishment that reportedly sells Nagasaki style noodles. The first thing I noticed about the place was the pitchers of water on each table, presumably to counteract the mouth-scalding amount of MSG in the food. The restaurant puts the patron in an American style war of attrition with his or her meal, a rarity for Japan. In this case, my foes included a tub of noodles, a bucket of fried rice and a dozen very nasty fried dumplings. In the end, it turned into a pyrrhic victory for me, as I felt like crap for the rest of the day.

Yesterday, everyone looked haggard at the office and Horita let me leave at noon. I spent much of the day reading Gravity’s Rainbow, which after spending a week struggling to read office memos and to understand Kumamoto’s thick dialect, zipped by like a dream. That night, R and I saw Shinoda Masahiro‘s latest Spy Sorge, a flawed but well-meaning flick that unfortunately coarsened to a muddleheaded pacifist yarn that seemed more naive that profound. When John Lennon’s Imagine faded in over the credits, I sort of hoped it was the version I saw on TV earlier in the week. “Have more tea, sir. Vomit.”

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