Hit film maker Yukihiko Tsutsumi has a reputation for capturing the attention of audiences with his fast-paced, star-studded, films, from the 2002 fantasy thriller “Trick” to the sci-fi horror series “20th Century Boys.”
His latest work, however, will likely raise a few eyebrows for a different reason: The 56-year-old director has shed all color, music and even laughter, to create a stoic drama featuring the life of a homeless man.
But that is exactly the way Tsutsumi wants it to be with “My House,” a commercial film with an indie feel.
“It doesn’t matter that it is not a commercial flick that nine out of 10 people will come out liking. Just as long as it can leave a lasting impression on one person, then I’ll be satisfied,” Tsutsumi said in a recent interview.
At a time when the Japanese movie business, which enjoyed a boom over the last decade, appears to have hit a ceiling, Tsutsumi’s film is a reality check, and a reason to stop and think.
“Having reached my mid-fifties, I realized that I wanted to create a film that I could take to my grave,” Tsutsumi said.
The movie is based on a magazine article written in 2007 by architect and writer Kyohei Sakaguchi, who documented the life of a homeless couple who lived in a sturdy, but easy-to-assemble (and disassemble) shack in Tokyo. They made ends meet by collecting and selling cans.
Contrary to the down-and-out image of street people, the couple lived a life of relative ease. The shack was filled with electric appliances, including a rice cooker and a TV snagged from garbage heaps. Everything was powered by discarded, but not depleted, car batteries.
Sakaguchi, who spent a year living a nomadic life similar to his subjects, became convinced that the domicile created by the couple, which he dubbed the “zero-yen house,” and the lifestyle spun around it, was in fact, a sustainable and practical way of life.
Sakaguchi said that through his writing he hoped to start a “revolution” to help people — particularly those obsessed with material things — to adopt a life within their own means. “I hope by seeing this movie, people might take a second look at their lifestyles.”
Tsutsumi was so impressed by Sakaguchi’s article that he asked the writer to take him to the Sumidagawa river bank the couple call home.
“The experience was a revelation,” Tsutsumi said. “It exposed the misconceptions of the homeless. One could even say that a homeless person with no liabilities is richer than me, as I’m running a debt in the tens of millions.”
The protagonist in Tsutsumi’s movie is a diligent man who goes about collecting cans and anything he can use to make life a little more comfortable. He develops strange and sturdy relationships of trust with shop owners, a gas station attendant, a love hotel operator and at least one homemaker, who provide him with cans, car batteries and anything he needs to live on.
Gradually, viewers see that the life led by the homeless couple is the reverse image of a middle-class family, safe inside their four walls, but alienated from the rest of society.
The film is shot in black and white because Tsutsumi said he wanted to “remove all preconceptions that are created by color,” and to allow the viewer “to use their imagination a little more.”
While he harbors no grand illusions, Tsutsumi hopes his movie will serve as a catalyst of sorts to convince other filmmakers and producers to “create works that they feel they should make, and not just works that are deemed marketable goods.”
He said he would like to create commercial films focusing on untold stories about World War II, traits that are uniquely Japanese, or social themes such as discrimination against certain groups.
The industry certainly could use a little variety right now.
According to statistics compiled by the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan, Inc., nine of the 10 top selling films in fiscal 2011 that raked in 1 billion yen or more were released by the same distributor, Toho Co. All but one – Koki Mitani’s comedy “Once in a Blue Moon” – are adaptations of manga or TV sitcoms.
Japanese movies have enjoyed a resurgence over the last five years, attracting more moviegoers than foreign films since fiscal 2008.
But while cumulative box office sales have been on a growth curve, topping the 100-billion-yen mark in most years, the figure dropped in fiscal 2011 by nearly 20 percent on a year-on-year basis to 99.5 billion yen.
“I have worked to create films that can be appreciated by as many people as possible, and generate profits so more works can be produced and marketed,” Tsutsumi said. “While I hope to continue to do that, I also want to create other works that can move perhaps even just one person, and stimulate another part of people’s brains,” he said.
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