Rotterdam winner Toshihiko Tanaka on ‘Shumari’


International Film Festival Rotterdam winner and debuting director Toshihiko Tanaka is set to follow “Rei” with “Shumari,” once again set in Japan’s Hokkaido.

“Over there, you can find the largest artificial lake in the country. It’s man-made, but it still beautifully harmonizes with the surrounding nature, creating a stunning landscape. It will be a suspenseful film, but if I had to sum it all up, I would say: It’s about love,” he tells Variety exclusively after the win.

Referencing actual events that took place before and after World War II, it will recall the tragedy of forced labor victims. Working on dam construction, both Japanese and Korean workers lost their lives. Some of them still await a proper burial.

“Attempts to excavate and repatriate their remains continue,” he adds.

“I’m anticipating a much higher budget than I had for ‘Rei,’ but I will mostly focus on the present and on the events that took place 20 years ago. The goal is to combine intimate human drama with historical context, which is still very timely, once again showing the breathtaking beauty of Hokkaido. But this time, my focus will be different.”

Tanaka is also developing a yet untitled project about the multiverse.

“I am very interested in exploring the theme of space,” he says.

“I love ‘Interstellar,’ which is so much more than just a typical sci-fi movie. I also want to depict vast, infinite possibilities of the universe, going beyond the latest scientific knowledge, and combine it with ordinary human struggles.”

While “Shumari” is expected to clock in at an audience-friendly two hours, “Rei” — at a sprawling 189 minutes — required a much bigger scale.

“Even for me, it takes courage to watch a three-hour-long movie. Still, from the very beginning I made a conscious decision not to think about the audience at all. I was influenced by Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s ‘Happy Hour,’ which is over five hours long. Spending that much time with the characters felt like going on a journey together.”

Toshihiko Tanaka, Takara Suzuki
Courtesy of IFFR

In “Rei,” produced by Tanaka himself and sold by Geta Films, thirtysomething characters look for connection and love. Just like Hikari, who then meets hearing impaired photographer Masato — played by the director — while her friend struggles with the demands of motherhood.

“As an actor myself, I wanted to ensure that each member of the cast received proper attention and spotlight,” he says. In “Rei,” he decided to work mostly with non-professionals.

“I am very interested in communication, especially when it’s non-verbal. On stage, I live and breathe words. Still, when I travel, I find it challenging to express myself in English. The issue is not the language, however — it’s me. In Japan, I also struggle to form relationships with other people.”

He adds: “I really feel it’s getting harder to form real connections in Japan. Social media might have something to do with it. It’s a global trend, but I notice it especially at home.”

Tanaka is ready to address subjects that might raise a few eyebrows in Japan.

“Politics and religion are generally considered taboo. While there is freedom of speech, expressing opinions on these topics can quickly lead to criticism. I would like to tackle that in the future when I feel the need to do so.”

Having performed on stage “for over 10 years,” he discovered directing during the pandemic.

“I started by writing a simple script and filming my friends. Before I knew it, it grew into something significant. I always felt that if I was to lose my curiosity in the characters I portray on stage, I wouldn’t be able to continue. When I turned 40, this feeling intensified. Now, as a director, cinematographer and photographer, my means of expression have significantly expanded.”

However, making personal cinema has proven to be a struggle.

“In Japan, there is almost no existing system to support experimental cinema. For these kinds of projects, filmmakers often have to rely on crowdfunding,” he says.

“In ‘Rei,’ one of the characters says: ‘It would be great if we could enter an era where only good works survive.’ It truly reflects my own feelings. Our promotional budget for the film was close to zero, but I believe there is potential for success at the local box-office.”

After his win, Tanaka is already focusing on his next aim.

“My goal is the Palme d’Or,” he says. “That being said, my greatest joy comes from engaging with the crew on set and being creative together. What I really want to accomplish is completing my Hokkaido trilogy — there will be another instalment after ‘Rei’ and ‘Shumari.’ That’s my biggest dream.”

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