Great Absence, the second feature film from Japanese director Kei Chika-ura, is receiving its world premiere in Toronto International Film Festival’s Platform section.
Inspired by Kei’s real-life experiences, the film tells the story of an actor living in Tokyo who is forced to travel home when the police call to say his father is suffering from dementia and has lost touch with reality. Making matters worse, his father’s second wife appears to be missing.
The actor makes the trip home with his own wife, full of conflicted emotions over a man who left the family when he was still a child, and starts an exploration into the mysteries of his father’s life. Along the way, the film touches on themes including time and memory, familial obligation and the role that women play in male-dominated Japanese society.
Veteran actor Tatsuya Fuji (In The Realm Of The Senses) plays the father, while actor, performance artist and dancer Mirai Moriyama plays the son. The cast also includes Hideko Hara (Shall We Dance) as the missing second wife, and Yoko Maki (Like Father, Like Son, After The Storm) as the actor’s wife.
The film also includes a special appearance from Satoko Ichihara, artistic director of Kinosaki International Arts Center and founder of Q Theater company, playing herself conducting an actual performance workshop that bookends the film.
Kei’s first feature, Complicity, about a Chinese immigrant in Japan, also premiered at Toronto in 2018. He also wrote and produced both films, which were both shot by acclaimed DoP Yutaka Yamazaki (After The Storm, Nobody Knows). Keita Kumano, assistant director on Complicity and Naomi Kawase’s True Mothers, co-wrote Great Absence with Kei.
Talks are currently underway with sales agents for international representation of Great Absence.
Deadline: Where did you get the idea for the film?
Kei Chika-ura: While this film is fiction, around one third is based on my own story. In 2020, just after Coronavirus hit the world, I got a call from the police to say they’d arrested my father. I was shocked because my father was a university professor, and a very formal, respectful person. But my parents had divorced when I was 12 years old, so we weren’t close.
I travelled to the west side of Japan, a long way from Tokyo, and found my father looking exactly the same, but due to his worsening dementia, his personality was completely different. He said he’d been kidnapped by North Korea and his second wife had been murdered. After talking to the police, I had to go through the things in his house and found letters that made me realise he’s not just that formal person I knew from childhood.
The experience was so upsetting, but also powerful, for me that I put aside my second film and started writing this script. While around 30% is my story, I also added more characters and a mystery element.
Deadline: Was making the film a cathartic experience? Or did you find it difficult?
Kei: It was difficult, but at the same time I’m happy that I rediscovered my father and his story through this process. I’m a film director because of my father. We lived in West Berlin and he took me to see a lot of films when I was a kid. Although I couldn’t remember it clearly, he told me that my first film was [Jean-Luc] Godard’s Every Man For Himself. I felt I needed to somehow preserve my father’s legacy through this film.
Deadline: Many recent films touch on dementia, but few portray it realistically. How do you think Japanese cinema is tackling this subject?
Kei: Japan tops the list of societies worldwide with the most people aged 65 or above and we also have the highest rate of dementia among developed countries. I can’t say I have an extensive understanding of Japanese contemporary cinema, but inevitably, many Japanese films touch on these subjects. There was a recent film about gateball, a popular sport among older Japanese people, that used humour to shed light on these issues. Tatsuya Fuji also stars in that film. I really liked it, but wanted to approach the subject from a different angle.
Deadline: Tatsuya Fuji also starred in your first film, but this is the first time you’ve worked with Mirai Moriyama, who is also known as a dancer in Japan. What made you decide to cast him as the son?
Kei: He’s a great actor, but many good Japanese actors are well-known internationally from the films of directors like [Hirokazu] Kore-eda and [Kiyoshi] Kurosawa. So I wanted to find somebody a little less well-known.
Before Great Absence, he often played extraordinary characters with special physical traits, which only he could do, but I really wanted to watch him play a very normal character. The role demanded a very quiet and subtle style of acting. I believed he could do it and think I was right, as his performance is fantastic.
Deadline: You shot the film on 35mm, which can’t have been easy during the pandemic. Why did you make that decision?
Kei: It’s not because I needed a nostalgic effect, it’s just that 35mm technology is very appealing to me. But I couldn’t do this on my first film because I didn’t have the budget. I built a good relationship with my DoP Yamazaki on my first film, and believed we could do it, but of course it was difficult because film reels are limited, so we couldn’t shoot many takes.
For example, in long scenes of dialogue, we can usually shoot many takes from different camera angles and figure out the possibilities in the editing room. But I couldn’t do that here, so it was almost like I had to do the editing in my mind before we started to shoot. It was a good experience because it taught me a lot about composition and discipline.
Deadline: Would you shoot on 35mm again? And will Toronto screen the film in 35mm?
Kei: No, the Toronto screening is by DCP, which is a compromise but not completely surprising. And yes I’d do it again. I’ve actually got a meeting with Imax Corporation while I’m in Toronto, because I’m very curious about making a film in that format. I sent a lot of emails to their president and happily he replied and invited me to visit their Toronto headquarters.
Deadline: How did you finance Great Absence?
Kei: Film financing in Japan is more like the American model, as we don’t have many European-style subsidies – it’s either independent funding on a very tight budget, around $100,000, or films with substantial budgets reflecting market trends and financed by studios. I wanted to make films outside these constraints. So in 2006, I founded a company – I’m also a computer programmer – and we make apps and websites. Then I finance the films myself, although Great Absence also has minority funding from Bunka-cho [Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs]. It’s been a slow process. I made my first short in 2013 and didn’t make my first feature until 2018. But it’s important for me to be both the director and producer.
I really admire Rei Kawakubo, the founder and main designer of [Japanese fashion label] Comme des Garcons, who has always said that creativity and business are inseparable and that creators should be responsible for both. And after two decades, Comme des Garcons is a global brand, but it’s still also completely independent.
Deadline: We don’t see many new Japanese directors coming through on the festival circuit. Is it difficult for new talent to break through?
Kei: I think one problem is that short films are not considered important in Japan. Filmmakers often make features as their graduation works. But in the international industry, many filmmakers have built their careers by showing their short films in major festivals. I also think we lack strong creative producers. It’s interesting to see that when [Drive My Car director Ryusuke] Hamaguchi was starting out, many of his films were also financed by tech and other companies from outside the film industry, not typical film production companies.
Deadline: Are you still working on the film you set aside to make Great Absence?
Kei: Yes, but it’s more expensive so we’ll be working in a different way, with my company collaborating with other investors and partners, although I’ll still be an investor in the project. It’s a serial killer detective story with sci-fi elements. It’s more ambititious, but I feel like I need to broaden the boundaries of my filmmaking style and genres.