Interview with Yojiro takita, director of Departures
This April, Yojiro Takita, a wellknown Japanese film director, made his fifth visit to China to serve on the jury of the 2016 Beijing International Film Festival.
Takita shot to global fame after his film Departures was released in 2007. Takita had been working for some time, however. Departures, his 43rd film, proved incredibly popular in China and ended up winning the Audience Award for Best Foreign Film, Audience Award for Best Foreign Director, and Audience Award for Best Foreign Actor at the 17th China Golden Rooster and Hundred Flowers Film Festival in 2008. The movie amassed myriad other international prizes including the 2009 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
During the 2016 Beijing International Film Festival, Takita was interviewed by Wang Zhongyi, editor-in-chief of People’s China under China International Publishing Group. Takita recounted his beautiful experience with China and its cinema as well as the influence of fifth-generation Chinese directors such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. Much of the impressive global success of Departures was kindled by its wide popularity in China.
“Movies have become a bridge linking Chinese and Japanese audiences,” he declares. It should come as no surprise that Takita is considering working on a Chinese-language film.
Wang Zhongyi: How did you become a director? How did Chinese films influence your work?
Yojiro Takita: I didn’t major in film – I became involved in the industry by chance when a friend introduced me to filmmaking in 1976 by recruiting me as crew for a project. I didn’t get a chance to direct my own film until 1986.
Fortunately, China experienced a cinema boom about the time I started working as an assistant director. Many Chinese movies by fifth-generation directors such as Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth and Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum became popular in Japan. These movies depicted stories of ordinary people in humble areas in the country, but the characters featured formidable vitality. The productions showed no sign of modern techniques. The result was a silently transformative influence on me – very basic human nature and feelings alongside the dramatic changes during the country’s modernization.
Wang: What inspired Departures?
Takita: The world began suffering economically in the wake of the tragedy on September 11, 2001. Many people started feeling lost and reexamining their beliefs. In such trying times, many people struggled to find peace amongst their families and friends, pondered the meaning of life or simply felt lucky to be alive. I think that many people feeling these complex emotions found comfort in Departures.
Like the rest of the world, Japan struggled with economic dilemmas, and some vulnerable groups were neglected. Universal stories involving normal men and women still continue no matter how hard life gets. I eventually chose the profession of mortician as the backdrop for my movie.
Wang: What about its marketing?
Takita: The male lead prepares corpses for burial, a profession that carries a strong social taboo in Japan. Few want to spend their lives at the doorstep of death, which is actually all around us at every time in every place. I worried about its box office potential when no company had picked it up over a year after it was completed.
The film’s prospects changed in 2008 when Departures won awards at festivals in Beijing and Montreal – the Japanese public became more interested. Despite the fact that many theater operators, still lacking confidence in the movie, didn’t spend much on advertising, curiosity inspired by foreign commentary lured Japanese spectators to the theaters, and most left deeply impressed.
A while ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Wang Xiaozhi in Beijing, who not only played a role in selecting films for the 17th China Golden Rooster and Hundred Flowers Film Festival, but also translated Departures into Chinese. I was so thankful to receive the manuscript of his translation as a gift.
Wang: Departures has enjoyed considerable popularity inmany countries around the world, especially China.
Takita: To count, the film has played in 76 countries, with considerable box office numbers in many. I watched the movie in theaters in the United States and South Korea and witnessed many spectators responding enthusiastically. I still remember a bloodcurdling scream in a theater in
The most direct response from a Chinese spectator happened during a 2009 Tokyo interview between me and then- Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Departures had just won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and Premier Wen explained his understanding of my story, “It was really touching,” the premier admitted.
I think that folklore concerning death differs widely between countries, and I wasn’t surprised that people from other cultures were shocked by Japanese tradition, which is not even very extreme.
Wang: What do you think of Chinese movie production in the digital era?
Takita: The progress has been amazing. I used to make special visits to several movie theaters in Shanghai, which really stunned me. China has overtaken Japan in the scale of the construction of movie theaters, and the numbers just keep growing day after day. And these places are outfitted with the most state-of-the-art equipment including screens, acoustics, and projection. I bet that China has the most cutting-edge movie theaters in the world (he laughs).
Wang: Are you thinking of making a Chinese movie?
Takita: Sure! I’ll come back one day to do that. But today, I don’t think I have enough experience here. I’ll find more opportunities to visit. If I make a movie adapted from some existing work, it has to be something that resonates with me.
My wife’s family used to live in northeastern China, and they have shared many of their experiences with me. For someone like me, who is still gasping at the horizon above the islands of Japan, working abroad seems like a pretty tall order. I really want to travel with my wife to places my parents and her relatives lived when they were young and feel past eras. I do hope to find the inspiration to make a movie in China.
Everyone has unique life experiences and philosophies, many of which are expressed through novels, movies or other expressive forms. Authors should work hard to write down their feelings and have them heard. Directors must strive to make good movies that earn the attention of the audience by resonating with them.
I’ve always considered movies as bridges between you and me, and I frequently want to shout: “Long live cinema!”