On the surface, biopics about elderly poets may not seem like compelling viewing. Yoshihiro Fukugawa, however, begs to differ, having recently finished his new film Don’t Lose Heart, which brings the inspirational true story of Toyo Shibata, one of Japan’s best known poets, to the silver screen. Although Shibata only began writing poetry at the age of 90, her published anthology has sold over one and a half million copies in her homeland of Japan. Much of her work draws from her own domestic experiences, living through two world wars and four emperors.
And while Shibata sadly died earlier this year at to age of 101, Fukugawa’s cinematic opus aims to continue her legacy by introducing a new audience to her work. Don’t Lose Heart is set to play at the 2013 Japanese Film Festival in Australia and its director, Fukugawa is in the country to promote the film. He took some time out to answer question on how and why Shibata’s memory and legacy deserve to immortalised.
Fletcher: Can you offer some insight into your knowledge of both Toyo Shibata and her poetry before you became involved as director of Don’t Lose Heart?
Yoshihiro Fukagawa: Three years ago, the producer sent me a book of Toyo’s poems, and that is when I first encountered them. Personally, I like poetry and often read it, but Toyo’s poems had a quality to them that I’ve rarely seen in other poetry I have read.
Her poems have no difficult language in them, nor do they use sophisticated techniques. But even so, when I first read them I strangely felt that I could see her face, and the way she lived. Her poems conjured up an image of her, as an elderly woman, and made me imagine what she must be like.
F: And what was it about that image of her that inspired you to take on the film?
YF: When I first read Toyo’s poems, they brought to mind my own grandmother and mother. Gradually, I began to feel that I wanted make a film about an ordinary, unknown woman. I wanted to make a story like my mother’s, or my grandmother’s, into a film. It was a challenging prospect, but with this film I thought, why not give it a shot?
F: Did you feel any pressure in bringing the life of such a well-known and beloved person to screen, especially one whose celebrity is so recent?
YF: Even when I felt there were expectations – and the flipside of that, which is pressure – I also felt a sense that something new was coming into being. It was like a fire secretly burning within me. The story is about a real person, so the film needed to be true to Toyo’s spirit. My goal was to make a film that didn’t lie.
F: Did you have the support of Toyo Shibata’s friends and family during the production? If so what kind of insight did they offer?
YF: When I was making this film, I was very fortunate to have the unreserved support of Toyo’s immediate family, her relatives, friends and people from her local community. Especially her son, Ken’ichi, who very memorably said to me, ‘I was really a bad son, so I don’t want you to portray me as a good person in the film.’
F: Were you able to meet Toyo Shibata before her passing earlier this year?
YF: When the project got the go-ahead, I made plans to meet her. However, she passed away only three days after the project was confirmed, so sadly I was never able to meet her.
F: Do you know if she was aware of the film being made, and if so what her reaction or thoughts were?
YF: Toyo was aware that I was planning to make a film about her, and I made sure that she was informed step by step along the way. When the project got the go-ahead, she was told immediately, and her son Ken’ichi told me that she was really delighted.
Apparently she was very happy that her character would be played by an actor as high-profile as Kaoru Yachigusa, and that Ken’ichi would be played by Tetsuya Takeda.
F: Can you tell me a little about working with Kaoru Yachigusa [The Samurai Trilogy]? Did you rely on her experiences as an artist and as a muture woman to help portray Toyo Shibata on screen?
YF: I’ve only been alive for 36 years. So I was planning to let Yachigusa-san’s experience of the way an older person feels and moves guide me as we went along. Now more than ever, Yachigusa-san is very open-minded when it comes to performance, and she was very gracious about listening to me and taking my opinions on board. You could say that making this film was like running together in a three-legged race.”
F: Did working on this film offer you a deeper appreciation of poetry than when you began?
YF: A lot of films have been made based on novels and manga, but films based on poetry are rare. I’d like to see more of them. For a filmmaker, poems are a form of literature that allows the imagination to come to life much more than novels can. The process of making this film reaffirmed this for me.
F: Toyo Shibata lived during an extraordinary era in Japanese history. Was it intimidating to consider all that she had seen and lived through and then compress that experience into a two-hour film?
YF: For Japanese people, Toyo Shibata’s life is not extraordinary. Hers is also the story of the elderly woman you find yourself sitting next to on the train, or the old man taking a morning walk in the park. This film tells of the experiences of anyone who was born in Japan before the war.
In the world today, it seems to me that we are less and less inclined to listen to people who have a lot of life experience. I hope the film inspires people to think about the nature of family and parent-child relationships.
F: What are your expectations of how Australian audiences will respond to the film?
YF: I can’t imagine how Australian audiences will respond to a film about the life of an ordinary, elderly Japanese woman. That said, we enjoy the films of directors like Jane Campion and Peter Weir, whose talents have been nurtured in Sydney. I’m looking forward to seeing how Australian audiences will react.
F: In that case what would you like to see Australian audience take from Don’t Loose Heart?
YF: Over 1.6 million copies of Toyo’s anthologies have been sold in Japan. To me, this says that there is a need out there for kind and gentle words like hers. I think that the response will be different from people in Japan, who have been affected by the recent disaster, but even if it just spreads a feeling of kindness and good, that would make me very happy.