Director Akio Fujimoto campaigns for more diversity in Japanese cinema

Filmmakers with overseas experience or backgrounds are no longer so rare in Japan, but, at just 33 years old, Akio Fujimoto’s international credentials are exceptional.

When the Osaka native moved from his hometown to Tokyo nearly 10 years ago, he met members of the Burmese community. Based on the stories they told him, he scripted and shot his first feature film, “Passage of Life”. Depicting the struggles of a Myanmar family in Tokyo and Yangon, the film premiered at the 2017 Tokyo International Film Festival, where it won the award for Best Asian Film of the Future and The Spirit of Asia.

Akimoto’s relationship with the country extended beyond the film: he married a Myanmar woman and, before the pandemic, split his time between Tokyo and Yangon, where he worked on programs for the broadcaster. NHK public.

Fujimoto’s latest film is “Along the Sea”, which also focuses on Southeast Asians living in Japan. This time, its three protagonists are technical trainees from Vietnam who work in a fishing port in northern Japan. After being screened at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain last September and at the Tokyo International Film Festival in November, the film is now in theaters in Japan.

“Passage of Life” was shot entirely with people who had never performed before, but for “Along the Sea” Fujimoto, along with its cinematographer and producer, held auditions in Vietnam open to amateurs and audiences alike. professionals.

After two weeks, he reunites with his three heroines, including Hoang Phuong, who plays the main character of the same name, Phuong. Appearing tough and stoic, she silently struggles with a crippling stomach pain that threatens her livelihood and turns out to be an unwanted pregnancy.

A Difficult Journey: The three protagonists of “Along the Sea” are not the typical main characters you would see in a Japanese movie as they are all Vietnamese. According to director Akio Fujimoto, there’s a belief that films with non-Japanese lead roles won’t do well at the box office. | © 2020 EXN KK / EVER ROLLING FILMS

“Ms. Phuong was the first one we picked,” says Fujimoto. “I wanted someone with a mysterious mood, so you wouldn’t know what she was thinking… a somewhat closed woman.”

Unlike other actresses who read for the role, the director says Hoang stood out in that she wasn’t trying to sell herself too hard.

“She was projecting a strange feeling of distance, as if she didn’t care whether or not she passed the audition,” he recalls. “This freshness made me want to know more about her.”

Non-Japanese actors, he notes, usually only play supporting roles in Japanese films, no matter how cool or mysterious they are.

“The main characters are Japanese even though the setting is foreign,” says Fujimoto, adding that he finds this facet of the filmmaking process in Japan “really unusual”.

“If you make the heroine a stranger, you can’t sell her, she won’t become a success,” he says. “So it’s difficult to make this kind of film with a big studio. It’s unfortunate, but I think more movies like this will be shot in the future and I won’t be the only one making them.

Yet the precarious situation of Phuong and his fellow trainees – An and Nhu (played by Huynh Tuyet Anh and Quynh Nhu, respectively) – who work without the proper papers and whose passports are in the possession of their abusive former boss, makes a gripping story which is unfortunately all too common in real life.

“When I did ‘Passage of Life’ seven years ago, I heard from people (in similar circumstances) and not much has changed since,” says Fujimoto. “There are a lot more Vietnamese in Japan now, but a lot of them are still in the same situation.”

The filmmaker says his original intention was to make a movie “the kids could watch.”

Open to Interpretation: Akio Fujimoto says that while he has something to say, he prefers not to impose a message or moral on viewers.  He thinks it's best for them to draw their own conclusions from his work.  |  © EXN KK
Open to Interpretation: Akio Fujimoto says that while he has something to say, he prefers not to impose a message or moral on viewers. He thinks it’s best for them to draw their own conclusions from his work. | © EXN KK

“I wanted to make a film that families can watch together without worry, so no extreme violence,” he explains, adding that he wanted to show it to elementary or college students. The perspective it offers on the lives of non-Japanese technical trainees, he adds, “is not found in Japanese education.”

Fujimoto says he would love if schools could show “Along the Sea” once a year and have students discuss it.

“It’s best to do it while they’re still young,” he says. “Japanese schools are closed worlds where prejudices against non-Japanese can easily take root. “

At the same time, Fujimoto didn’t incorporate any obvious messages into the film.

“Even though I have something that I really want to say, if I put too much of that message in the movie, it becomes all about me,” he says. “Instead, I want viewers to get their own message from the film. If what I am saying is too strong, it annoys. … I want them to look for the message in the main characters.

Fujimoto also rejects the common critical assumption that he made a glorified documentary.

“I don’t know what documentaries are because I’ve never done any,” he says. “And to be honest, I’m not really aware of documentaries. I make fiction films.

As fictional as its story may be, “Along the Sea” is sure to resonate with many non-Japanese viewers residing in Japan, from the polite indifference of the Japanese people encountered by the three protagonists to the despair of Phuong as it wanders lost in an unknown city. .

“The Japanese (in the film) cannot imagine the situation of women,” says Fujimoto. “Imagining that sort of thing has nothing to do with their own work, so they don’t try. “

Fujimoto has not yet decided on the subject of his next film but believes “it will probably also be migrants.”

“I would like to continue the story of ‘Along the Sea’,” he says. “At least I want to try.”

“Along the Sea” is now showing in select cinemas across the country. For more information visit

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Marie A. Evans