By Donsaron Kovitvanitcha
Special to The Nation
As is always the case in May, the French Riviera is awash in stars and fans as the Cannes Film Festival celebrates its 72nd anniversary with a showcase of interesting titles from around the world.
Although only a few Asian titles made it into this year’s selection, there are a couple of big names in the running for the big prize. South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho is back with “Parasite” and Chinese director Diao Yinan, who won the Golden Bear from the Berlin International Film Festival in 2014 with his “Black Coal, Thin Ice” is presenting “The Wild Goose Lake”.
Producer Jeremy Thomas, second right, works with Takashi Miike, left for the fourth time on his latest film “Hatsukoi”, which premiered at the Director’s Fortnight of the Cannes Film Festival 2019.
However, one of the most anticipated Asian films in Cannes this year is “Hatsukoi” (“First Love”), the latest work of Takashi Miike. It’s been one of the hits of the Director’s Fortnight, a non-competitive sidebar section of Cannes.
The title “First Love” does nothing to prepare the viewer for the force of the violence. Indeed, it might well be one of the most violent films showing in Cannes this year. It tells the story of Leo (Masataka Kubota), a young boxer in Tokyo who meets Monica (Sakurako Konishi), a call girl with whom he falls in love. After getting involved in drug smuggling, they are forced to spend a long night battling the police, the Yakuza, and assassins sent by Chinese mafia.
Director Takashi Miike and actress Sakurako Konishi at the world premiere of “Hatsukoi” at the Director's Fortnight of the Cannes Film Festival 2019.
“Some people might say I’m bad for putting so much violence into the film, but it’s not me. It is the characters in the film who demand this,” Miike tells The Nation.
As a director who has made many films about the Yakuza, Miike stresses that the gangsters shown in “Hatsukoi” as well as in his other movies, are different from the real-life Yakuza.
“In the old days, I made Yakuza films in a straight to video deal and I conducted my research with real Yakuza. Actually, the Yakuza like the ones you see in the film are difficult to find in society, rather like the samurai who don’t actually exist.
“You might think a movie about the Yakuza is just another violent film, but in fact, there are many diverse parts to the story. And they are all connected. What I try to portray is friendship, and ultimately existence. It’s just that I don’t have my character saying ‘Why am I here?’ I don’t define the film by genre”, he explains.
“I got lots of feedback from the Yakuza community,” he continues. “A Yakuza organisation once submitted a formal complaint to the production company, saying that their boss would never play the piano. We had to take them a bottle of sake as an apology! Nowadays that would be difficult as the law doesn’t permit that kind of thing. However, if you want to shoot in areas controlled by them like, say, Kabukicho in Shinjuku, you will have to contact them anyway or you can’t shoot. You don’t have to pay them, but you have to talk with them beforehand to ask for their permission. In the past we used to pay, but nowadays the film industry doesn’t have the money.”
Miike cast rookie actress Sakurako Konishi to play Monica, the call girl and addict but who also has an innocent side.
“Sakurako has almost zero acting experience. That lack of experience makes her very fresh when she’s in a scene and that’s good as I wanted to make a pure love story. For that reason, it’s important that the audience doesn’t feel any familiarity with the character. All other characters are played by famous actors. Becky, for instance, is a TV personality but she’s been banned from the industry for a while. She plays a bright character and is perfect for that part. She didn’t audition. I wanted her for the role,” says Miike.
Takashi Miike’s latest film “Hatsukoi” (“First Love”) stars first time actress Sakurako Konishi as Monica, a call girl while actor Masataka Kubota play the boxer who falls in love with her.
The actress, a well-known TV personality, is rarely seen these days following the 2016 scandal about her affair with a leading married musician. She was attacked for destroying the man’s family and banned from the entertainment industry.
Famous actor Shota Sometani (“Legend of the Demon Cat” and “Parasyte” Parts 1 and 2), who worked with Miike on 2014’s “As the God Will” plays the Yakuza.
“He doesn’t look like a Yakuza though. In the past you could tell who was in the criminal gang by the way they dressed. Nowadays, it’s much more difficult. The Yakuza has diversified too,” the director says.
Masataka Kubota, who has worked with Miike since he debuted in the TV series “Ketai Sosakan 7” in 2007 was chosen to play the main character.
In Takashi Miike’s latest film “Hatsukoi”, actor Masataka Kubota plays Leo, a young boxer who falls in love with a call girl.
“Ten years ago, I cast him in his first TV series, which I was directing. He became popular over the years but always plays the same type of role. As an actor, I thought he was probably frustrated and it would be good for him to be in this kind of film. No sooner had he finished though that he was back in the morning TV series, doing the same thing all over again!”
“Hatsukoi” is the fourth collaboration between Miike and British producer Jeremy Thomas, who was behind such classics such as "The Last Emperor", “Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence” and “Naked Lunch”.
“Jeremy respects our way of filmmaking and encourage us to be more free, but during the editing, he is very honest about his opinion. He can’t understand everything in the Japanese context but he tells us what he doesn’t understand, and puts forward his own ideas. He always makes sure that I am the one who chooses. Jeremy is very different from the Hollywood type of producer,” says Miike.
The director has plenty to keep him occupied when he returns to Cannes.
“I am developing many projects, one of them for an American streaming service. But once I go back to Japan after Cannes, I have to shoot a commercial,” he laughs.
Miike, who has been making films from small straight-to-video movies to big-budget productions for almost 30 years, is well aware that he needs to adapt to the new era of streaming.
“Cannes as a film festival has a history. You can see where it is coming from [in not permitting entry to Netflix]. But you also know that things change all the time. The way we see films changes as well.
“Me, I am going to change with the times as well.”