Meet the 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | “Abraxas” Director Naoki Kato

Meet the 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | "Abraxas" Director Naoki Kato
Meet the 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | "Abraxas" Director Naoki Kato

Jonen is having a crisis of faith. In his youth, he was a punk-rock musician, creating noise and onstage spectacles. Now he’s settled into a life as a Buddhist monk with a wife and five-year-old son. During his career-day speech at a local high school, however, Jonen has a public breakdown that leads to a deep depression when he realizes the importance of music to his life. In an attempt to raise Jonen’s spirits, the compassionate chief monk suggests he play a live show. As he plans for the concert, Jonen faces challenges from past loss, small-town resistance, and the possibility of alienating his family.

Full of authenticity and charm, “Abraxas” is a subtle exploration of a man’s journey to reconcile the spiritual and secular. Director Naoki Kato cinematically renders the film to complement its philosophy by uniting the everyday and the transcendent. Rich, rewarding, and profoundly moving, Abraxas affirms peace and happiness within and posits “once a punk rocker, always a punk rocker.” [Description courtesy of Sundance Institute]

World Cinema Dramatic Competition
Director: Naoki Kato
Screenwriters: Dai Sako, Naoki Kato
Cast: Suneohair, Rie Tomosaka, Manami Honjo, Kaoru Kobayashi, Ryota Murai
Producers: Hiroko Matsuda, Kosuke Oshida
Cinematographer: Ryuto Kondo
Editor: Hitomi Kato
Music: Yoshihide Otomo
Production Designer: Koji Kozumi
Sound: Yasumasa Terui

Responses courtesy of “Abraxas” director Naoki Kato:

The movies as ‘savior…’

When I think back, the movies saved me. In my childhood, I saw only several Hollywood movies every year. However, one day in my high school days, I happened to see Kitano Takeshi’s film and it overwhelmed me. It didn’t look like any movies I had ever seen before. Takeshi’s film taught me what exists in the world beyond my knowledge and imagination.

In the university, ignoring lectures, I spent a lot of my time going to the movies because they were too exciting to resist. Then I came to make independent films by myself, but shooting is to face the naked reality. I had been a shy and timid guy before, but I just realized that I have made films with dozens of people. As for me, film is not a wonder land where we can escape from the reality but the door to the world and societies. I knocked the door and film made me come through.

From Monk to Rock Star and what is necessary for life…

This film is based on the novel by Sokyu Genyu, a novelist and a real Buddhist monk. I was attracted deeply by the humor and resonance of the story of a manic-depressive monk who was giving a rock live show. And though it was not written, the scene of the protagonist playing guitar frantically in the sea came to my mind while I was reading. This visual expression of human insanity and fragility made me decide to make this film.

The protagonist is a Zen monk and the theme of the film is expanded from social problems such as suicide and disease and depression to religious thinking. Besides, it talks about how the new-comer family lives in a rural community. So I tried to treat and focus the universal theme: “What is necessary for our life?”

It’s all about the sound…

In shooting, I always explore something. It’s a bit different from the shooting where the filmmaker has concrete images in advance and realizes each image in shooting. For me, shooting is framing the flesh-and-blood reality by camera. We cannot know what happens. But by being flexible, all kinds of accidents give unexpected good effects. So I tried to observe and determine what is right at each moment. And I believe sound is very important for a film. I think my films are supported by sounds much more than the visuals effects.

On every step, in scriptwriting, pre-production, shooting and editing, there were specific difficulties. What I tried to focus on especially, is the sound design. I hope the life of Jonen, who cannot control the noise inside him but finally finds it as it is, has been depicted strongly not only by the storyline but also by the sound design.

Finding a child prodigy and a miracle dog…

The location of this film is Fukushima Prefecture, which is a country-side region. We made the film with the people living there, and one of the most impressive encounters was with Taku Yamaguchi, who was found at the audition for the role of the son of the protagonist. He acted so excellently that we couldn’t imagine that he was not at all a professional actor.

Although he was a 5 year-old, he understood perfectly the scenario. I felt as if I was working with a veteran actor when he told me, “I cannot say these lines because I cannot accept this dialogue.” And one of the other important encounters is with Nam, a dog who lives in the Zen temple in the film. The scenario called for a dog that is [other worldly], but finding such a dog at an animal rental company was not easy. But fortunately, when the producer just asked about dogs to people living in Fukushima while location hunting, someone said that they had a dog in their house that fit our needs. So we found him! It was somehow a miracle. In such ways, this film was completed by the link of many lucky encounters.

How audiences will take to the film…

The main character, Jonen, is struggling and anguished, unable to get along with himself. He is a human a priori before he is a depressive monk. His presence will surely [be familiar] to all those who have worries in real life.

Kato’s “Good Morning” factor…

This time, I was inspired by only one film: “Good Morning” by Yasujiro Ozu in regard to soundtracks. When I was discussing with our music composer, Yoshihide Otomo, my desire was to make our soundtracks like “Ozu” came to me. It was for the scene in which the Zen Monk is running around the town to put up the posters for his own live rock show.

I wanted to accompany this scene with his high-tension and comical airiness as well as the warm atmosphere of the rural community, and “Ozu” came to my mind. Then Mr. Otomo replied to me, “Let’s make the post rock of Chicago!” He thought that the sophisticated ambience of the works of Jim O’Rourke and Tortoise would match the county-side scenes. I confess that our soundtracks were a mixture of “Ozu” and Chicago post rock.

Taking on the downturn in Japan and the rise of youth murders…

Unfortunately, there is no project proceeding with a green light yet. As for “Abraxas,” it took three entire years to complete. Now that it is very difficult to make independent films in Japan, if given the chance, I would like to make films in any genre.

Among my original projects, there is a sonic road movie about a man who visits many Southeast Asian countries for picking all kinds of “sounds.” There is also a drama about young people. Now in Japan, we live in an era of business depression, and there are a huge number of college students who cannot find jobs after graduation. I would like to make a story about youths who have to face this difficult reality and struggle to find their way. Besides, since the 1990s, there have been many random murders committed by the younger generation and even indiscriminate massacres. We cannot find any solution and don’t understand the reason for these crimes. I am eager to make a film [tackling this phenomenon], and will surely do.

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