Featured photos and others were taken by Faith Orcino.

Content warning: For those that are sensitive to the issue of suicide, readers discretion is highly advised. If you need to talk to someone, please contact the U.S. national suicide prevention lifeline 1-800-273-8255 open 24/7 or visit their website. You are not alone.

The 14th annual Japan Film Festival Los Angeles brought an interesting set of films for their audiences to enjoy during the two-day event. One of them was Director Shun Coney’s 2018 drama “Amanogawa – The One I Longed For”, winner of the festival’s Best Original Screenplay category.

Shiori Kotoura was a student of Shibusawa High School. Like many other students, she attended cram school to further her education. It was one of the things she did for her mother, a known college professor and researcher who pushed Shiori hard towards the academics. Even with all the studying, Shiori remembered her old passion of taiko, traditional Japanese drums. One day a local troupe practiced in her school’s gym and she joined them instead of going to cram school. They extended an invitation for her to join their upcoming festival performance in Shibuya. She accepted it even though it was the day of the national mock exams. The time with them made her happy and brought memories of a friend that shared her love of taiko. It would be later that Shiori’s mother found out about taiko while she planned to sneak out to meet with her old friend. A furious argument left Shiori crying in her room and unable to go. Shiori’s heart broke again when she found out that her friend took her own life and she retreated back into her room and away from everyone else. The news of her grandmother’s accident took her out of her home as the recovering woman asked Shiori to go to an island to be a substitute taiko teacher. With surprise to her frustrated mother, the girl accepted to go. Though, the ferry ride was quiet, a little switch-up left Shiori with a strange and responsive robot named Seira. Shiori must take care of the machine while trying to handle her own in this new temporary home of hers.

“Amanogawa” was a poignant film that many people would see themselves as some of the featured characters. Though there were many quiet moments in the movie, whether it was the serene setting or Shiori’s timidness, there was heavy emotions present. Even the Ori-Hime robot helped a lot presenting this human drama about grieving. “Amanogawa” showed many complexities of people’s problems and burdens in a way that was easy to follow. Though some things were not resolved, it gave a satisfying level contentment in the ending and a message for the audience to take about life.

Director Shun Coney posing with Ori-Hime robot.

After the screening, I sat down with Director Coney for an interview thanks to JFFLA.

I asked him about how he felt attending the U.S. premiere of “Amanogawa”. He told me (through his JFFLA translator) that he received very good comments from Japanese audiences but JFFLA viewers told him how the film was perfect and amazing.”He was even more happy seeing people from other countries enjoying the film.”

In the post-screening Q&A, Coney talked about how they had a hard time filming due to the tricky time between a typhoon and the emperor’s visit to the southern island of Kagoshima. I asked if he had any favorite memories while working. He talked about how it took time for the locals to warm up to him since he was from Iwate, an area in the northern area of Japan. According to him, it was around the third or fourth time that everyone became welcoming and wanted to support him and the film. “He had such a warm memory of his time in Kagoshima.”

Another moment he remembered was when he met a professional taiko player. The man had more than 40 years of experience and when Coney approached him about the movie, “he said ‘You’re insulting the Taiko culture.’” Coney then said that the man ended up liking the movie and also was in one of the last scenes. When I asked if lead actress Momoko Fukuchi had any prior taiko experience, he revealed that the same taiko player taught her. Fukuchi had very limited time due to her agency’s schedule but “she became amazingly good” after three practices and the professional though she had the talent within and was meant to play the drums.

We dove deep into his past when I asked him if he had any role models or mentors that helped him carve his path into movie making. Coney talked about how he continuously studied to keep up in the advanced educational life he had due to his parents. When he failed to get into one of the top universities of Japan, he became a hikikomori or a very reclusive shut-in and comtemplated about suicide. He always stayed in his room while talking in online chatrooms. An older classmate of his named Teddy opened a chat with him and started to help him during that rough time. The two formed a close bond and the classmate asked Coney if they could meet for lunch. However, before they could, Teddy jumped off a building and the next time they met were at his funeral.

Coney (via Translator): “… when he [Coney] saw him that he [Teddy] committed suicide, he [Coney] thought that he should live and don’t think about dying anymore. He should live for Teddy as well because he had helped him so much. He wanted to give something back by choosing not to die.” Coney was 19 when it all happened and the beginning to his new life. “… he’s [Coney] met so many people that he could respect and had so many good memories. He thinks that Teddy created the very start so he really appreciates that.”

After hearing that moving stories about his past tragedy, I asked if Director Coney put himself in the story due to the similarities with him and Shiori. He explained how many in Japan suffer from their environments like with parents, teachers and others at school.

“Many people want to die, want to commit suicide. That is a reality that hasn’t changed from many, many years ago from when he had that experience. That is why he wanted to save those people having a hard time.” He wanted to show that the people around those suffering though Shiori who lost a lot and went on her journey and see the change in those surrounding people. “… that process is very important and he wanted to tell that message through his story based on his experiences.”

As part of his message to his fans, he talked about how he wanted to create beautiful things when he was young but now felt that he should make things only he could. “… in this film, he wanted to portray the inside of people, not just the outside through this robot [Ori-Hime], through the characters this very important message in a place called Yakushima, one of the most spiritual islands in Japan.” Coney said about “Amanogawa”. He talked about how the film was outshined by popular ones. “That is why although he really appreciates the Japanese fans, he really wants to show this [Amanogawa] to the world who could understand this movie. He wants his film to become a bridge between Japan and the world. That is why I want many people in America and all around the world to see this film and share it so that people can have that moving experience.”

I greatly thank JFFLA 2019 organizers again for setting up the interview.
For more information on the event, check out their website which has the full lineup.