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Documentary is a deep karma. Filmmaker Atiqa Kawakami talks about her determination.



A circle of friends connected by goof-touch! The “FIST BUMP” corner of the radio program “GRAND MARQUEE” features people who live and enjoy Tokyo in a relay format.

On June 29, film director Atiqa Kawakami appeared on the show, introduced by video and photo artist Shin Yamane. We asked her about her childhood when she experienced the joy of portraying people and her thoughts on her latest documentary film.

The Joy of Drawing People Experienced in a Silent Childhood

Celeina (MC): First of all, let me introduce my profile. After graduating from Yokohama City University, she won the second prize at “Kirin Art Award 2001” with her first film “Pilgrimage” about the Japanese American incarceration experience. Since then, he has worked as a freelance filmmaker on a wide range of projects including documentary films, collaborations with musicians, web commercials, and making-of films. Kawakami-san’s latest work, “With Each Passing Breath” will be released on July 1.

Takano (MC): The day after tomorrow.

Kawakami: That’s right. This is my first feature film, and I am very nervous about whether the audience will really come.

Takano: What made you want to make a film in the first place?

Kawakami: Originally, I wanted to be a photographer. I wanted to go to a university that had a photography department, but my parents were against it because being a photographer is a world where only a very limited number of people can make a living. The tuition fees were too high for me to go there by myself, so I decided to study while attending a public university. I was accepted into the film production training program in the film department, not the photography department at NICHIGEI, and I was assigned to study photography and hair/make-up. The film was about drag queens, so I went to a gay bar and learned how to apply makeup. That scene was my first contact with film.

Celeina: You mentioned earlier that being a photographer is a narrow gate, but being a film director is also a narrow gate.

Kawakami: I really think that is true.

Takano: Did you want to make documentaries from the beginning?

Kawakami: Yes, I did. Actually, I didn’t have any friends when I was little, but I was the kind of kid who stared at other people. One day, I drew a very detailed portrait of my aunt, and she was very pleased.

Takano: I see. It is true that observing people is a part of your artistic style, isn’t it?

Kawakami: Thank you very much.

Thanks to a French friend, I learned the charm of ronikyoku

Celeina: Finally, the day after tomorrow, Mr. Kawakami’s first feature documentary film, “With Each Passing Breath” will be released. We had a chance to see it as well.

Kawakami: Thank you very much.

Celeina: To give you a brief synopsis, the main character is Minatoya Kosome, who dives into the world of ronikyoku. She fell in love with the legendary Koyanagi Minatoya and became his apprentice, and the story is told until the day of her debut performance.

Takano: I had never been exposed to ronikyoku in the first place, so it was very new to me.

Kawakami: I didn’t even know the “ro” in ronikyoku until I made this film. I wondered how many young people knew about rokyoku.

Celeina: How did you come across rokyoku?

Kawakami: A friend of mine is a French filmmaker named Vincent Moon. He is a man who travels around the world looking for sounds that move the soul, and he asked me if I would help him because he wanted to search for them in Japan as well. I couldn’t find the answer right away, but when I mentioned this to a fan at one of Kazuki Tomokawa’s concerts, he told me that I should see a ronikyoku master named Minatoya Koyanagi, and that’s how it all started.

Celeina: How did you feel when you actually saw Minatoya Koryuu on stage?

Kawakami: It was really great. He tells a story in about 30 minutes, and it was an experience like stepping back in time to the world of the story. It was like a jazz session, and there were expressions that were so rapid-fire that you would have thought it was rap. The shamisen was played by Sawamura Toyoko, and I was caught up in the whirlwind of energy between the two of them, and the 30 minutes really flew by. It was like I was under some kind of magic.

Minatoya Koryuu

Takano: Kawakami-san’s images are not staged at all. As I mentioned earlier, I really liked the observer’s point of view. I felt as if I was listening to the conversation between Mr. Koyanagi and Ms. Kosome from a very close distance, which gave me a great sense of immersion.

Kawakami: In the world of ronikyoku, the boundaries between people are faint, and the relationship between people is like a pseudo-family, but there is also a sense of respect between people who aspire to the same ronikyoku. In order to express this faint relationship, I decided to shoot the film myself by their side. So I think the way I approached the subjects was different from the way you see documentaries on TV.

Takano: During the filming, there are a few seconds of close-up shots of the quilt.

Kawakami: I am very happy that you liked that scene. It is a scene that I cherish very much. Takuya Kawakami did the sound conditioning, and we created a 5.1 channel sound system so that we are surrounded by the sound.

Celeina: Was there a particular point in time that you struggled with in making this documentary?

Kawakami: Master Koyanagi had been a traveling entertainer for 40 years, and there were almost no records of her performances, so my first goal was to preserve even one of her arts. But soon after I started documenting, the master collapsed and things changed. Documentary is a world that I cannot control. It was a challenge for me to see how I could pick up what the story appealed to me.

Celeina: I see. Now that you’ve told us all about it, it sounds like you’d like to see a live performance of rokyoku.

Kawakami: By all means. There is a Yose called Kibatei in Asakusa, which is the only place in Tokyo where they perform Ronikyoku live, and was used for the filming of Netflix’s “Asakusa Kid”. I hope you will visit there.

Celeina: We asked Kawakami-san to choose a song that he would like everyone to listen to together on the radio at this time.

Kawakami: It is “Isn’t She Lovely” by Stevie Wonder. A couple of my friends in the film industry had a baby at around 4:00 this morning. I wanted to give this song to Kokoro-san as her first birthday present.

Celeina: That’s wonderful! Let’s send it to you.

Documentary Production is a Deep Business

Celeina: Kawakami-san, do you have a policy that is important to you when making documentaries?

Kawakami: I think that making documentaries is a very difficult job. You are exposing the lives of individuals. You never know how it will affect them. You have to take responsibility for that and be prepared for it. I always keep that in mind when I am shooting and editing.

Celeina: Indeed. You can tell the story in a realistic way with or without narration, and you can also deliver the story in a way that draws the audience in. In this case, “Zessho Ronikyoku Story” is something that will directly touch the hearts of the audience.

Kawakami: Rokyoku is a form of entertainment that appeals to the emotions in a straightforward manner. Originally, it was a street performance art, and it started as a gate-entertainment art, then became a street performance, and then changed to a yose entertainment. It is an art form that has been close to the masses because of its humanistic nature. That is why there are many warm stories that appeal to the hearts of the masses. When I finished shooting this film, I felt that the film itself was like the story of a ronikyoku.

Takano: I hope everyone will see it.

Celeina: FIST BUMP: Today we welcome film director Achika Kawakami. Thank you very much.

Kawakami: Thank you very much.


J-WAVE (81.3FM) Mon-Thu 16:00 – 18:50
Navigator: Shinya Takano, Celeina Ann



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