"Cast the actors who deeply understand the meaning of the lines"
Hiroshi Akabane believes that “movies have the power to make a difference in people’s lives”. Based in Japan, Hiroshi has already produced many hit TV series including “Kyoshi BinBin Monogatari" and "GTO".
His feature film, Immortal Hero, tells the story of Makoto Mioya, who spends busy days as a successful writer and founder of a publishing company, living happily with his wife, Isoko and his 3 children. But he has a secret. He has been in touch with highly evolved beings in the Spirit World for years, awakening him to the truth about spiritual existence and life after death. One day, Makoto has a heart attack and the doctors tell him from a medical perspective he is functionally dead. However, miraculously, he comes back from the edge of death. Focused on accomplishing his mission to convey the invisible truth, he devotes his whole life to this mission. But as word and his popularity spread, he starts to face harsh criticism from the public and his wife struggles to understand him. Makoto continues to dedicate his 2nd life to fulfilling his mission.
Immortal Hero won Festigious Best Picture award in August 2019. We invited Hiroshi to join us for an interview. Here's his story.
Hiroshi, congratulations on winning Best Picture, Best Inspirational Film, Best Original Story and Best Narrative Feature! Before we discuss the film, let's talk about you. You're an in-demand director, famous for the Japanese TV series Great Teacher Onizuka, Kyoshi Binbin Monogatari and other hit dramas in Japan. You also won many awards for your work. How did you start out and how did you get to where you are today? What are some memorable moments of your journey?
I've got into this world because I love it. Because I love it, my sensitivity has been refined, and because I love it, I have been able to continue without giving up no matter how difficult it’s been. I also feel that I'm here because I met many people.
Where do you find your inspiration?
I take time to contemplate in a cafe to put together thoughts of what to shoot for a movie. In many cases, the inspiration that comes first becomes the final answer. Also, people who I see in daily lives, such as in trains and cafes become a source of inspiration.
Hiroshi, you must be incredibly busy. can you take us through a day in your life?
I try to take alone time for inspiration in the morning. That's why I particularly think morning time is very important.
Immortal Hero was brilliantly written by Sayaka Okawa and Ryuho Okawa, who also executive produced. Tell us about your collaboration with them. How did you come on board the project, and what was it like to work with them? Did the screenplay shift a lot before/during/after the shoot?
This film is based on the actual experience happened to the executive producer, Ryuho Okawa. Sayaka Okawa, who wrote screenplay was there when everything happened and she wrote as it was. That's why when I was reading scenario to prepare for shooting, I tried to "accept" the contents of the scenario, not by judging with my common sense. For example, Makoto Mioya is diagnosed as "dead" with latest medical technologies because of his heart failure and pulmonary edema of lung. However, he miraculously recovers. It was a challenge for me to believe in these facts. With this process, I discovered the own unique greatness of the scenario.
How long was the shoot and how did you prepare for it?
The shooting period was 44 days. This story portraits the function of invisible power through the main character's miraculous revival and everywhere else. Therefore, it was a big challenge for me to visualize the existence of "invisible power" which surely exist in this world, as a movie. In order to realize this, we have devised a set-making approach in addition to CG expressions. For the scene where the main character revivals against the latest medical technologies, we brought in medical devises and rebuilt the intensive care unit to create "reality" in order to persuade the audience that the miracle really happened there. Dramas, unfold on the way the main character lives, are also described in the film and in order to express the subtle emotions of each characters, we built Mioya's two-story house in the shooting studio so that we can shoot each of the actors from various angles. I think it was very effective.
Hisaaki Takeuchi is excellent as Makoto, and so was the rest of the ensemble (Yoshiko Sengen, Tamao Sato, Yoshimi Ashikawa, Tamotsu Ishibashi, Kinoshita Kei). They made the story come to life! What was your casting process like? Did you or the writers have any actors in mind while working on the screenplay?
I believe that the best casting is to have the people who understand the meaning of lines very well. Even experienced actors will not be able to do believable performances if they have little understanding of the lines. Mr. Takeuchi, who played the role of Makoto, was not an actor from the beginning. Makoto Mioya's lines are very religious and spiritual, but since Mr. Takeuchi is a professional religious person/priest, so he understood the lines fully by his heart. He has been in spiritual training, and for many years, he was a secretary of Ryuho Okawa, who is a model of this film and Mr. Takeuchi loves him very much as one of his disciples. His emotions appear and are portraited through his lines, that's why his acting is believable. For other roles, we were able to cast someone very close to the real figure on the script as well. Everybody understood the figure and did wonderful performances.
How did you work with the cast to achieve such dramatic and realistic performances? Was there any improve on set, or everything was exactly according to the screenplay?
Regarding of performance guidance, even if we give specific instructions, such as the way of saying a line, it will not be a good performance unless the actor him/herself does not realize it. So, I give only a minimal instruction. As rehearsals goes, actors themselves notice that "I should express this line like this way". Playing catch starts while the actors are rehearsing each other. If one throws a strong ball, the other one starts to feel like throwing a strong ball back. I like shooting of these moments when actors discover something by themselves. When they discover by themselves, their atmosphere changes. That's a true spirit without any lies. Just saying the lines as instructed does not bring such atmosphere/sprit around them. As shooting goes, actors' spirits became stronger and there are more and more to put on our hearts.
Were there any unforeseen challenges you had to deal with on set?
The unexpected challenge we had was that we suddenly changed the shooting schedule. We originally planned to shoot scenes with short pieces, but we decided to roll the camera longer and take whole scenes in one shot for some scenes. The scene was when three actors have conversations. It is also a scene with a lot of long lines, and I think the pressure on actors has increased due to the sudden change, but they met my expectations.
The score by Yuichi Mizusawa is beautiful and supports the drama in a very effective way. What was it like to work with the composer? Did you use any references (temp track) while editing?
Regarding of the music, we have received four original songs from the executive producer, Ryuho Okawa. Sayaka Okawa was also in charge of not only writing a screenplay, but also arranging these four songs and even singing one of the songs called "Once More." Mr. Mizusawa used these songs to understand the concepts and scenarios of this film in a deep manner, and created the soundtracks which makes actor's acting look even greater. I believe his music also contributed to the creation of this film's unique worldview.
As a very experienced director, what are your expectations from your cast and crew on set?
The director's job is to shoot the "atmosphere" coming out from actors, things overflow from the inside of people, and the expressions' change at the very subtle moment. These come from the play catch of thoughts between director and actors, but they also come from staffs at shooting site. In that sense, it is very important for casts and staffs to be united. If they are united, the shooting will proceed smoothly. For this, I put value on being honest and talking to everybody in the same way. The staffs are always looking at my back, as a director. The casts are looking at me straight from the front. That's why I believe being honest brings a unification when we are shooting.
The film sends a hopeful message of encouragement for people who suffer from illness, frustration, family crisis and more. How was the movie accepted by audiences so far? What were some of the reactions?
There are occasions when unexpected accidents occur in life, and we worry about how to get over. If I put it in words, I think when the incident happened, the main character Mioya tried to climb up the escalator which was going down. When you stop, you keep going down. But if you want to reach to the top, even if you're tired, you'll have to move your feet all the way forward. So, where does he get the energy from...? I believe that the source of his energy comes from "believing in something invisible". I hope that the people who watch this movie will feel the source of that energy. In hope of this, I have worked hard to think about how to shoot actor's expressions and figures. Thus, I would want the audience to watch this film by replacing Makoto's life to their lives.