Filmmaker, dog

THIS USED TO BE HERE Tokyo diary: Part 2

Added on by Kenta McGrath.

Hugh Thomson and I are currently in Tokyo filming some scenes for This Used To Be Here, a fiction/documentary hybrid film. This is Part 2 of a production diary, just bits and pieces. Part 1 is here and Part 3, here.

Yohei Miyake

Japan recently enacted the controversial state secrets law. Among the multitude of problems that this law poses is that whistleblowers and journalists who divulge state secrets now face prison terms; there's a lack of a clear definition as to what constitutes a 'state secret', giving the government a vast amount of freedom with which to exercise the law and control the flow of information; and the bill was passed so quickly that there was no effective debate about it, inside or outside the parliament walls. I'd heard that there had been daily protests outside the National Diet (the Japanese parliament) during the passage of the bill, so had planned to go there on a Saturday morning to film them. But the bill passed during the night and a friend told me that there was a large protest rally planned at Yoyogi Park in the morning. We headed there instead, and I'm glad we did.

Protestors marching through Shibuya.

The protest was headed by Yohei Miyake, a popular musician/activist who ran on a Greens ticket for the Upper House of the Diet earlier this year. Despite winning an impressive 170,000 votes in an electoral system hostile to minor parties, he didn't get in. Miyake speaks plainly, earnestly and simply – a refreshing trait in politics, in Japan and elsewhere. He's won the support of many Japanese who usually wouldn't bother voting, or are uninterested in politics altogether. (You can watch his opening campaign appearance, subtitled in English, here.) The protest began with a number of speeches and musical performances in what was a very informal, relaxed, festive atmosphere. The speakers included authors, musicians, academics and politicians, past and present – all male, as is usually the case in Japan when it comes to politics. One speaker was actor-turned-lawmaker Taro Yamamoto, who recently caused a storm in Japan after he broke with the longstanding protocol of not involving the emperor in politics, by handing him a letter drawing attention to the ongoing crisis in Fukushima. The speeches were followed by a march through Yoyogi, Shibuya and Harajuku. It attracted over 5000 protestors, including many who decided there and then to join in. It was fun, and far removed from the image that Japanese demonstrations tend to evoke, which is of old people with placards chanting tiredly.

One of our stranger shoots so far involved following Argentinean photographer María Sábato to a job interview at a kyabakura (hostess club). The club, which hadn't yet opened and which I won't name, was in the outskirts of Tokyo and specialised in Filipino girls, with a small smattering of Eastern Europeans. The place was pretty large by Tokyo standards. I was amazed they let us film there; they even offered food and beer, and an invitation to their launch party with drinks on the house. It seemed like the owners – a Filipino woman and a Korean man – had led colourful lives, that they really had to work their way up to this. They were in the process of doing the place up, and it looked tacky but impressive. Their pride and joy was a massive new karaoke stage with lit floor panels, a massive mirror, fancy lighting, the works. According to them the sound system was "the best that money could buy".

Mária on the train.

The interview was long and awkward and didn't go particularly well for María. Basically, it was a problem that she had only a tourist visa; the police crack down hard on clubs hiring foreigners illegally. There was a long explanation about this, followed by a spiel about how important it is to follow one's dreams. The owner then suggested that she might be able to help María find work through some other club owners, so she invited a rival club owner to come down and check her out. The interview ended with María being asked to demonstrate her chops at karaoke. She reluctantly got up and sang Madonna's La isla Bonitaone of the few songs she could find with (some) Spanish lyrics, as the rival club owner stood in front of her and watched on. He then got up and sang a Japanese ballad, which I didn't recognise. Hugh then got up and sang Ring of Fire, just because. Later, after realising that I could speak English and Japanese, the owner asked me if I would be interested in taking a job as the club manager (although what I think she really meant was 'tout'). I told her I don't live in Tokyo anymore. Then move here, she replied. It really got me thinking. Afterwards, María scrubbed off her makeup and swapped her high heels for sneakers ("This isn't me") and we caught the train back. On the journey home I asked her to speak about her feelings about what happened at the club, but in Spanish, as if to a friend back home. She talked for about twenty minutes. I only caught bits and pieces, so most of what she said remains a mystery until I return to Australia and have the footage translated. Still, I found it moving.

A crow in Inokashira Park.

One of the few pre-planned sequences we have to film is of a small earthquake; a light tremor strong enough to rattle household objects and send birds flying into the air (whether birds actually respond to earthquakes or not, I've no idea). We spent a day in Inokashira Park trying to film shots of birds flying off. This was a near-impossible task, not because there weren't enough birds – there were plenty – but because Tokyo birds don't scare easily and are quite content to remain perched while some idiots underneath clap, shriek and throws sticks and stones in their direction. It was exhausting but we got a few good shots. We then filmed back at the apartment. First we experimented with a variety of magnets to try and pull objects around and off the table, but we moved on after deciding we had neither the space nor the appropriate props to make it work. Hugh devised a scrappy, elaborate rig connecting string along the kitchen shelves, so that he could pull them from offscreen like a puppeteer and make the cutlery and crockery rattle about. We then filmed a few more low-fi shots to create the illusion of an earthquake: lights flickering, windows rattling, the kettle boiling, the clothesline falling down as a train passes in the background. We then spent three hours – that's right, three fucking hours – in the cramped kitchen trying to film a shot of a laptop screen as an email is received. We shot about twenty minutes of footage and I expect the final shot in the film, if I end up using it all, to last approximately one second. We were hindered by a bad Wi-Fi connection, batteries dying, and both of us going completely stir-crazy and falling into uncontrollable fits of laughter, even though nothing was remotely funny. At times like these, you wonder if you're spending your time on this earth wisely. Afterwards we went out and ate a huge meal, and everything was alright.