Filmmaker, writer, dog

THIS USED TO BE HERE Tokyo diary: Part 1

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 1 of a production diary, just bits and pieces. Part 2 is here.


During the landing into Singapore I managed to record a distressed infant making sounds that no infant before her had made. The poor thing. She was having a bloody horrible time, her ears doing strange, uncomfortable things, too young to know that a yawn or swallow will make it all go away.  I don't know if I'll be able to crowbar her cries and gargles into the film but I'll keep them incase anyone wants to use them for an Exorcist sequel. Later I saw her with her parents at the airport, alive and well and ready to holiday. Everyone wins. I wasn't looking forward to the 13-hour stopover for the same reasons that nobody else looks forward to 13-hour stopovers. But our stay was really nice, thanks to Hugh's friend Rudi who took us around and fed us great things. The flight to Tokyo was comfortable. We got up at the crack of dawn to film the sunrise out the window, which was claustrophobic and tricky. We then waited for some nice clouds, and we got them.

The view from Tokyo Skytree

After a couple days' rest we started scouting around Tokyo for scenery shots and snippets of everyday life, which is mainly what we're here to do. I've always wanted to get shots of Tokyo's cluttered skyline, so we headed out to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku which has two free observation decks 45 floors up, roughly 200 metres high. Unfortunately they wouldn't allow tripods (or even black sheets) so that was a no-go. A few days later we had an opportunity to get what we wanted at the recently-completed Tokyo Skytree, for now the tallest tower in the world. Skytree charges a hefty ¥2000 entry fee but it was worth it. The view from the 350m-high observatory was amazing (you can go up to 450m for a surcharge, but it wasn't necessary); the people below looked like dust and the trains looked like eels. It was also very camera friendly: tripods weren't a problem, and the windows were even tapered to reduce reflections. 


On Friday we went to Odaiba to film some scenery and see the exhibition of Argentinean photographer María Sábato, who we'd met at the place we're staying at in Koenji. Odaiba is an artificial island on Tokyo Bay, a sterile, soulless residential, shopping and leisure area. It's an uninteresting place and will remain an uninteresting place until it becomes derelict one day, but the views of Tokyo over the bay are brilliant. It's also one of the only places in the city where you can access the seashore. We also filmed some shots of and on the Daikanransha, formerly the world's biggest ferris wheel (the recorded announcements coming out of the carriage speakers remind you constantly throughout the ride). It was cramped, difficult and probably the most hectic ferris wheel ride I'll ever go on but I think the shots look nice and the view from inside was even nicer.

Tokyo Superstars

Later that night we went and watched our friends Kazu and Masashi play in their great band MEKARE-KARE. Afterwards, I was introduced by chance to a member of the band Tokyo Superstars, who I'd filmed for my film Three Hams in a Can back in 2008. I didn't recognise him because his hair was about two metres shorter than when I saw him last (there was a handsome lad hiding underneath all that). I'd wanted to see his band numerous times over the years but they never played when I was in Tokyo. He invited me to a gig they were playing a couple of nights later, which coincidentally was on the same night Three Hams was playing at a festival back in Perth. They were amazing. I figured out that they played my favourite song an hour-and-a-half before it would be played by their younger selves on a screen in Australia. 

Tsai Ming-liang introduces Stray Dogs at Tokyo Filmex.

In the first week I was also fortunate enough to catch a few films at Tokyo Filmex, a festival launched by Office Kitano, the production company of Takeshi Kitano. Mohsen Makhmalbaf was the president of the jury. On Thursday we saw fashion designer turned filmmaker Agnès B.'s Je m'appelle hmm... Lots of beautiful people in the audience. I remarked afterwards, maybe unfairly, that it seemed like a film made by a fashion designer. I'm not sure what I meant by that exactly but the film was a bit of a stinker and I've forgotten it already. On Sunday we went to see Jafar Panahi's Closed Curtain but regretfully I dozed off in the first half hour – not from boredom but lack of sleep – and when I woke up the narrative had turned in such a different direction I had no idea what I was watching. Refreshed from the snooze, a quick meal and some coffee, I went back in and saw Tsai Ming-liang's Stray Dogs (bizarrely given the title Picnic in Japanese), the film I've most wanted to see this year. There was a gasp as Tsai walked onto the stage to give an unannounced introduction, and I snapped away on my iPhone like a lil' fanboy. Stray Dogs was an intensely slow, strange and beautiful film. It completely hushed the audience on several occasions, and the hush continued in the lifts, stairs and corridors as the people left the cinema. The city felt different afterwards.

Last night we recorded a voiceover with my friend Amber, who is visiting Japan with her boyfriend Tim to attend a wedding. As we're staying near the train station, we had to wait until around 3am for it to be quiet enough to record an uninterrupted take (the other, more expensive option was to hire out a soundproof rehearsal studio room). We all piled into my little box of a room and gave it a crack. We were interrupted a few times by some drunks yelling down the street. Eventually it was quiet, and it seemed it would stay that way. We started recording and everything was perfect until the very last line when we heard some weird animal sound. "What the fuck was that!?" Amber shouted. Just Hugh snoring.