Filmmaker, dog

THIS USED TO BE HERE Tokyo diary: Part 3

Added on by Kenta McGrath.

I recently returned from Tokyo, where we filmed some scenes for This Used To Be Here, a fiction/documentary hybrid film. This is Part 3 of a production diary, just bits and pieces. Part 1 is here and Part 2, here.

The order of events is a bit hazy now, but we spent a decent chunk of December filming very disparate things that we had no idea would find a place in the film. We spent half a day filming people walk past murals in Nakano, a massive waste of time in hindsight. Days filming commuters in and around Shinjuku, and lots of trains and train stations, all over the place. We also visited our fair share of Christmas iruminēshon (illumination) displays. Tokyo takes Christmas lights seriously, much more seriously than Christmas itself. Lit-up Christmas trees are erected next to most train stations, and some yuppie districts have full-blown lighting spectacles that must cost some fortune to run. We went to one such place, at Tokyo Midtown – an urban district in Roppongi that houses businesses, retail outlets, restaurants, apartments, a Ritz-Carlton and the Suntory Art Museum. The lighting throughout the whole area was amazing, but the centrepiece at The Starlight Garden – usually a grassed square overlooked by Francis Ford Coppola's Vinoteca restaurant – was phwoar! The lighting show here was incredible, and it was accompanied by a syrupy Brian Eno-esque soundtrack that made everything sentimental. The only thing that would snap you out of it was the "Fly Emirates" sign that popped up after each cycle, reminding you of the reason behind all the beauty. We got some good footage, although when the lights and music were turned off at 11pm – on the dot and without any announcement, which is unusual for Japan – the area became quickly deserted and depressing.

A few days later, my aunt invited me to my uncle's violin performance (I didn't even know he'd started learning, or had any interest in music), where he was going to play a Bach piece with my aunt accompanying him on piano. The performance was for an end-of-year recital hosted by a small music school, consisting mainly of beginners – half piano and half violin students, mostly children with a small handful of adults (my uncle was the oldest). I got permission to film the whole thing, but wasn't prepared for what was to come. The piano performances, which came first, were fine. But sitting through an hour and a half of violin beginners was mostly excruciating, like listening to fingernails scraping across blackboards with occasional hints of melody. I had goosebumps for most of the time and felt anxious. But I managed to get some good footage, not the least of which was an encore group performance of My Grandfather's Clock. Originally by 19th-century American songwriter Henry Clay Work, I used to love the song when I was a kid (it's hugely famous in Japan, where most people believe it to be a Japanese tune) but nobody seems to know the song in Australia, and I didn't know what it was called in English. A few weeks before leaving for Japan I was walking the dog and heard the song coming out of an apartment, out the front of which an old man was sweeping up leaves. I stood and listened to the lyrics and Googled it when I got home. It turns out he was playing a Johnny Cash version, which is probably the best I've heard. I decided I wanted to use the song for the end credits of the film and was thinking of ways to record a version of it. So I was happy when the song fell coincidentally into my lap – the performance sounded like a swarm of bees, with almost everyone out of tune, but it was nice.

There were a few other such coincidences in Tokyo. A guy I know from a record shop in Perth wandered past the camera when I was filming in Inokashira Park – I don't know what the chances of that happening are, but it just doesn't happen. On another occasion we were filming in a tiny park in Meguro, a neighbourhood where I lived when I was a kid. The park is, or at least was, affectionately nicknamed neko-chan kōen, meaning 'kitty park'. I'm not sure how it earned this name, because there weren't many cats around as far as I can remember, and the two decrepit animal rides in one corner of the park are otters, and definitely not cats. We tried to film some earthquake shots here (as described in my previous diary entry); this entailed Hugh and I lying on the ground out of frame and shaking an otter each, using any spare limbs to shake whatever else we could reach and shake in the frame, such as a tree or a fence. Needless to say it wasn't convincing in the slightest and we squandered a couple of hours of precious sunlight. Weeks later we went to a New Years party hosted by the family of a childhood friend, who also lived in Meguro back in the day. I was telling her about the park shoot when her fanny-pack-wearing, black-sheep uncle, sitting at the end of the table, casually remarked that he saw us filming there. Everyone laughed then brushed him off, assuming him to be drunk and taking the piss as always, but he insisted. "I was walking down the street to dump some rubbish," he explained. "And I saw these two strange gaijin with a video camera doing weird shit at the park. It must've been you two." It turns out he'd moved into the apartment where my friend used to live, and had in fact witnessed us squirming on the ground like crackhead lizards.

Another coincidence involved Australian Greens Senator Scott Ludlam, whose name you probably won't know if you don't follow Australian politics. When I was sifting through the footage of the protest we filmed in Yoyogi (which I wrote about in the previous diary entry), a man who looked very similar to Senator Ludlam popped up in frame. I thought nothing of it and assumed he was a lookalike. A few days later, I found out via Ludlam's Facebook page that he was holidaying in Tokyo. I went back through the footage and peered harder. That's fucking him, right? In the centre-left of frame, at the back? Unless I'm mistaken and Senator Ludlam's doppelgänger was also holidaying in Tokyo and attending protests, we may now have a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo by an Australian politician, who also happens to be one of only a very small handful of decent Australian politicians in existence (he's a Perth boy too, no less). I used to tell people that Tokyo is a city where you can run through the streets naked. Unless you're arrested, you can feel safe that you'll be recognised by precisely nobody, and that you'll never again come across anybody who does see you. Now I'm not so sure.

In the last days of December we went to film at a diner in Nakano – nothing more than a tiny room with a kitchen counter and a half-dozen cramped tables – where I'd stopped for a meal a few days before. On the first visit there was just myself and another man eating there, and I eavesdropped on the conversation between he and the owner, a woman who has been running the place for 45 years. The man said that he used to frequent the place some 35 years ago, when he was in middle-school. He'd since moved to Chiba and was in Tokyo for business; he was walking through his old neighbourhood and had decided to pop into the diner on a whim, in the unlikely event that it was still there. I really liked the atmosphere of the place and after the man left, I asked the woman if I could come back and film her working; she agreed. This time, the shop was packed and the poor woman was run off her feet. We initially had to sit right by the counter, too close to film with the lenses we were using, so we sipped our drinks for a good hour or so before we were able to move to a table far back enough. We filmed the owner cooking and serving for about half an hour, in one static wide shot – our Tokyo Jeanne Dielman shot. Afterwards I asked her a few questions about her life in the diner. Her responses were simple and blunt, but we got plenty to work with.

In the last few days in Tokyo we went to an izakaya and filmed a friend, who recounted a story he told me a few years ago – a scary, but hilarious account of when he was caught in a rip current and almost drowned. We filmed a few more earthquake shots in various neighbourhoods, focusing mainly on birds and powerlines. We discovered that when power poles are shaken, the lines often shake for hundreds of metres down the street. This enabled us to get some convincing wide/long shots, rather than the fragmented close-ups we'd been relying on. Our last shoot was a simple pre-planned sequence with my cousin, who we observed getting ready to leave the house, then leaving the house, then disappearing down the street. We recorded some sounds and a few voiceovers in the last couple of days, and called it a wrap. We spent the New Year period catching up with friends and family, and getting fat and messy.

We had a great time in Tokyo. Thank you to everyone who lent a hand, gave us advice, ate and drank with us, appeared in our film and joined us on our travels: Cesar Bermudez, Chizuko, Ryan de La Santos, Mike Ferron, Miki Fukuda, Miica Fran, Amber Gempton, Henrique, Kota Horikiri, Alison Jones, Tim Loughman, Kaity and Ådne Meisfjord, Masana, Ryota, Yoshiko, Yuko and the Noma family, Rika Okazaki, María Sábato, Dirk and Emma Stewart, Suze Thomson, Kazu Tahara, Masashi Takizawa, Toshi, Liza Trajano, Hiroshi, Tomo and the Utsugi family, and anyone else I've forgotten.

Now to edit this shit together.