Takumi Saitoh Debuts Directorial Work at Japan Cuts, Finds Own Identity in NYC

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Before meeting Takumi Saitoh, I never thought I would like him more as a director than as an actor. He is better known as an actor (moreover, a magazine model who is praised for his magnificent body which he showed in the TV show and later film, “Hirugao: Love Affairs in the Afternoon“) but very few of his acting works struck me as the kind that I’d be interested in. Though he is not a type cast, the recent perception of Saitoh has been more or less of an erotogenic, mature man of few words who is a perfect secret lover. Not until now have I realized how unfair the impression is and the real Saitoh is so much more than just that.

Takumi Saitoh is one of the most anticipated guests of Japan Cuts Film Festival of this year. He brought two films with him this time, one of which is a Singapore-Japan collaborated movie, “Ramen Shop“, where he is the leading actor, and the other is his directorial debut, “Blank 13“. He attended both screenings and so did I as an audience member (thanks to the PR staff of Japan Cuts). He occurred to me as a soft-spoken, well-organized scholar despite the floral embroidered suit he wore on the first night and cassock inspired one-piece outfit on the second night. As usual, the host would first bring the guest to greet the audience briefly before the screening, then after the screening the host and guest would return to the central stage and the Q&A session would begin.

As the opening movie for the festival, “Ramen Shop” was moving but somewhat banal. It told the story of how a child (Saitoh) of a Japanese father and Singaporean mother (Jeanette Aw) who grew up in Japan returned to Singapore after his father’s death to seek for the genuine taste of Bak-Kut-Teh (pork bone soup) and reconcile with his remaining family under a local Japanese food blogger (Seiko Matsuda)’s help. The film touched on topics such as inter-cultural conflicts and the impact of WWII on young generations, but eventually fell on the platitude of an emotional reunion while the discussion on the reason of estrangement remained unsolved. Some audiences also complained that the film started slowly, although the latter half picked up significantly and contributed some hilarious and heart-warming moments.

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At the Q&A of “Ramen Shop”, both the director Eric Khoo and Takumi Saitoh were present and answered questions from the host and the audience. Khoo joked about first meeting Saitoh after he won the Best New Director Award for “Blank 13” at the Shanghai Film Festival. When the two met, Khoo asked Saitoh how long it took to shoot “Blank 13” and Saitoh answered “one week”. Khoo then laughed and said “I like you”. During breaks in shooting, Saitoh and Matsuda would explore Singapore together and bonded over a shared appreciation for the local cuisine. When asked about the biggest difference between the film industry in Japan and Singapore, Saitoh confessed to being amazed upon learning that he only needed to work 10 hours a day in Singapore, allowing him to use the rest of the time to reflect on the character and have a good rest. “Such terms would be impossible in Japan”, he said.

Free hand fan, ramen and beer at the afterparty

On the second night of the film festival, Takumi Saitoh seemed even more relaxed. Before the screening of “Blank 13”, he introduced himself as the director and briefly expressed his appreciation for the viewers in English. This was another sold out screening at Japan Cuts and people arrived early just to get good seats.

The film starts with a funeral scene in which the deceased has the same last name as a wealthier deceased man in the nearby temple, and people keep mistaking this one whose funeral held in a small, low rise mourning hall for the rich man. The camera turns indoor, where very few people are present. Then the shot cuts to a flashback of a destitute family of four hiding in a shabby apartment from yakuza gangsters hired by a debt collecting company. Later that night, the father Masato Matsuda (Lily Franky) goes out for a pack of cigarette, never to return. The mother (Misuzu Kanno) takes on several jobs to support the family, working day and night. One day on her newspaper delivery route she is hit by a car. Badly injured, she nevertheless struggles to put on makeup and clock in for her night shift.

The children in the family finally grow up and have their own life, but not close to each other. The elder brother Yoshiyuki (Saitoh) hates his father to death while the younger one Koji (Issey Takahashi) still feels sympathy and emotionally connected to him. They later found out that their father is dying of cancer. At a visit to him, Koji shockingly sees his dad still borrowing. Meanwhile, his girlfriend (Mayu Matsuoka) tells him she is pregnant.

Not until after a number of flashbacks did the second and principle part of the film finally start. The camera returns to the scene of the funeral, where random mourners come and go. In contrast with the earlier dark, depressing atmosphere, the film makes a sudden turn by engaging those mourners who are supposedly acquaintances of Masato Matsuda to discuss their encounters with the deceased, but somehow, the conversations turned into a total freak show of his whacko buddies doing skits. However, through these ridiculous narrations the two brothers, especially Yoshiyuki, discovered the real soul of their dad behind those cowardly years of escaping from debts.

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Takumi Saitoh received a big round of applause when he came to the stage for Q&A. When asked of his first experience as a feature film director, Saitoh told the host how he values an actor’s first take and avoids doing too many takes, as it may lead to overacting which hurts the quality of expression. That was also the reason why the film only took a week to shoot and the script-less funeral scene only took a day and a half. He also mentioned how much help and advice he received from his friend who wrote the music for the film. He even re-adjusted the pace of film to sync with the beat of background sounds.

Takumi Saitoh showed a great sense of humor at the Q&A session. A girl from China told him she went to see “Hirugao: Love Affairs in the Afternoon” in Shanghai last year with a guy who she just started dating and it was incredibly awkward (due to the amount of graphic sexual scenes in the film). Saitoh sat in silence for a while before slowly replying in English,” I was naked in that movie. I’m so sorry.” The audiences burst into laughter. Another audience member asked him where he would go sightseeing in New York City. He told her he was actually leaving in 7 hours but felt content simply watching the pedestrians on the street. “Everyone seemed to be so independent and has his own identity.” he said, “I then asked myself, what my identity is like? This is something I will keep trying to find out.” He subsequently asked the girl where she would recommend going next time he comes back to the city. She answered wittily, “I’ll tell you next time you come back to NYC.”

After watching Saitoh talk and act two days in a row, I can’t say that I know any more about him than I did before, but I did gather a better understanding of his vision and opinions on film-making. He might be considered a newbie in terms of directing at this point, but he seems like a leaper to me and I very much look forward to his future directorial pieces.

Cover photo by Mena Ru

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