Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Atsushi Ogata On The Well-Shot Comedy and Change In Japan

Yuichi Nagata JSC. ©Globetrot Productions 2006

In "Eternally Yours," when a crook attempts to take advantage of a forgetful elderly woman, surprises are in store.

I spoke with Director/Writer Atsushi Ogata on Monday evening over a set of nine-dollar beers. Being from Tokyo he hardly flinched.

-Interview by Jon Robbins

Is your background in acting and directing?

My original background is in video art, and then I started getting European grants to write scripts for movies which never got made, and then I started acting in friends’ films, and then I came to HB Studio here in NY, and then I started work on a comical Dutch quiz show, playing a scorekeeper and saying funny things, and then I went back to short films. From there, I started making performance videos in which I was acting as well as directing.

I made my first film, “Champagne,” about a Japanese artist who comes to Holland trying to sell his pictures but the gallery owner actually wants him to teach her how to make sushi. It’s about misunderstanding.

And then I made this film, commissioned by the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial, a Japanese arts festival, based around my experience of being confused for someone else. For instance, in a gift card shop here in New York, I’ve been there three times, and each time, thirty seconds into the door, people say ‘excuse me sir could you tell me where this or that card is?’ And I’m often mistaken for a gas station attendant in Austria. In Leicester Square I was mistaken for a runaway Peruvian child and they tried to offer me a job.

This experience gave me the idea for “Eternally Yours,” where there is confusion over identity.

My impression was that in Japan, elders are to be respected. In your film, the elderly lady is shown great disrespect by a scheming young man. What brought you to that plot line? Is it a reflection of what’s happening in Japanese society?

Yes. I think the old values are breaking down. I mean there are so many crimes targeting the elderly now, partly due to economic factors, and partly to the dissolving social order, the nuclear family’s reign. People are losing their jobs in Japan at unexpected times, and if you’re over 35 in Japan it’s very difficult to get a new job. For all these reasons there are lots of conmen, which like everything else in Japan is highly organized. They get a trip to Hawaii for good work and are beaten the hell out of for poor performance.

There are two big scams. One is that they call you and say ‘are you so and so’s relative, well he’s in trouble you need to deposit money into this account or else you will have an embarrassing situation.’ And Japan is a shame-based culture, so people deposit the money immediately. Even I got a call while I was making the film.

The other type of con artists try to convince you that you need house repairs and they gather their friends and do endless repair work and bill you a huge amount. If yolu’re an elderly person living alone, you can get taken very easily.

Atsushi Ogata - Photographed by Manako Yamaguchi

I really appreciated that your film, which was very funny, was also innovatively shot, with warm, patient takes. Rare for a comedy, don’t you think?

I’m originally a visual artist so it’s really important to me that films look beautiful, but, as you say, most comedies are not shot that way. Woody Allen’s are well-shot, but that’s a great exception. Most comedies are shot flat and boring, and I didn’t want that, so when I was looking for DPs, I found Yuichi Nagata, who's done both comedies and independent films, and more than one hundred of them, including “Water Boys,” a well known Japanese film. I really liked the way he composed shots, and even though he’s in his 50s, he likes to experiment with new media, so he actually used the newest Panasonic HD camera with a P2 card. So we just recorded onto a card and the editor simply worked from a laptop on the set as we were shooting.

The other thing is that in Japan you usually have a Director of Photography and a Director of Lighting, who are equal in rank. Well, in the case of Mr. Nagata, he does both—quickly, and very beautifully. I’d wanted the antagonist of “Eternally Yours” to be in the shadows in the beginning and then to be gradually dragged out into the light. Well, I explained this to him in the beginning, twice maybe, and in a very general way, and he just did it.

And to answer your question, the actors were so good that it seemed a shame to do much cutting. There was simply no need for it. Because I’m an actor myself, I sat down with the actors and really fleshed out the roles with them. But I did not have to micromanage at all with these actors. The only thing I had to do was remind them of details. But not the essence. That we produced together.

-Interview by Jon Robbins

Eternally Yours (
Atsushi Ogata, Japan, 2006; 15m) screens:
Wed Mar 28: 6:00pm at The Museum of Modern Art
Thu Mar 29: 8:45pm at the Walter Reade Theater


Anonymous said...

Atasushi Ogata's wonderful comedy film, "Eternally Yours" was screened before an enthusiastic audience during the 2007 Moondance International Film Festival at Universal Studios, Hollywood. "Eternally Yours" also won the Moondance Seahorse award for best short comedy film.

Elizabeth English
Executive Director
Moondance International Film Festival

Anonymous said...

Well said.