This weekend at AFI FEST in Los Angeles, American audiences will get their first opportunity to take in Kitao Sakurai’s “Aardvark.” Already a staple of the European festival circuit after premiering in Locarno this summer, the film uniquely portrays the real-life relationship between a blind man recovering from alcoholism (Larry Lewis Jr) and his hard-partying Jiu Jitsu instructor (Darren Branch). In the film, Larry and Darren play themselves and essentially reenact their lives together. At a certain point the film departs into a realm of complete fiction, but in general “Aardvark” blurs those lines considerably.
It also marks the debut feature from Sakurai, who has a wide-ranging resume that includes acting in Kevin Smith’s “Dogma” as a child, and more recently working as a DP on Ry Russo-Young’s Gotham Award winning “You Wont Miss Me.”
Born in Japan, at the age of three Sakurai and his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he went to Japanese school and was admittedly “super shy.” But when he started doing plays, he realized the power behind acting and performing. This led to roles in film (including the aforementioned “Dogma”), which in turn led to an interest in filmmaking.
“I did this movie when I was eight years old,” he said. “Called ‘Best of the Best, Part 3,’ [it was a] direct-to-video action movie. I realized that in terms of filmmaking the more [actor-like] craft was the filmmaking itself. So in high school I started making films and that got me on the film festival circuit. From there, I sort of randomly stumbled into cinematography. I mean, I always loved photography but I never thought I’d be a good cinematographer. I just had my own ideas about how things should look, and I really took to it. I really loved – and still love – shooting.”
At eighteen, Sakurai moved to New York, where he started working as a director of photography.
“DP-ing felt closer to stage acting than trying to be an actual stage actor in New York,” Sakurai explained. “In Ohio, I was really involved in the underground theater community there. I wrote plays and acted in plays and that was really my main deal. So being in New York, I just really identified with the cinematography community more, and that got me involved in that city’s indie film world, which was really inspiring.”
But it was his roots in Cleveland that ended up being the source of inspiration for “Aardvark.” Darren Branch, one of his friends there, was a Jiu Jitsu teacher and Sakurai had repeatedly attended his classes.
“There was this blind man in them who I thought was just such a fascinating person and really intriguing,” he explained. “And I found the relationship he had with Darren really intriguing. I’m very interested in male relationships that are sort of sensual in nature. Relationships that sort of fall between categories, which I think most relationships do. And somehow, their relationship and what they embodied, really took hold of me somehow.”
This manifested itself into an idea for a film while Sakurai was attending a film festival in Buenos Aries with his producing partner Andrew Barchilon. After seeing films that really made him think about “the push and pull of cinema’s engagement with physical reality,” the idea for “Aardvark” just came out.
“I didn’t have a script, I didn’t have anything,” Sakurai said. “But the idea was pretty fully formed. So we just committed pretty directly to making it. When we got back from Argentina, we hustled and ended up shooting just three months later.”
Sakurai convinced both Darren (who he had worked with on films before) and Larry to join in on the project by playing of versions of themselves.
“We just committed to doing it,” Sakurai said. “And luckily all the stars aligned and I had all of my best collaborators that I had worked with on board. Sometimes these projects come along that, from the moment it starts, everything just falls into place – like it was just meant to be…It was more like, here’s this idea that came about, and everybody that signed on did so in the service of this idea, including the actors, and myself.”
This weekend in Los Angeles, “Aardvark” will come to America debuting in the inaugural “Young Americans” section at AFI Fest.
“I’m very curious to see what happens at AFI,” Sakurai said. “I’m really happy that our U.S. premiere is going to be on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. Because somehow it’s a really weird fit for the film, but it also just feels really right.”