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“I am a Monk” Director Talks about His First Film

• Yukinori Makabe, a 31-year-old director from Japan, visited Chicago’s AMC River East 21 on May 4 to join the discussion after the screening of his debut movie, “I am a Monk,” a real-life story of a young monk in Shikoku, Southwestern Japan.
• Makabe was invited by Sophia Wong Boccio, Executive Director and founder of Asian Pop-up Cinema, a Chicago-based not-for-profit organization with a goal of introducing Asian culture to the general public through Asian films. “I am a Monk” was chosen for screening as part of the organization’s Sophia’s Choice program. The movie is based on the book by Missei Shirakawa, who is the real-life abbot of the Eifukuji temple, 57th of the 88 temples on Japan's Shikoku pilgrimage route. It tells a story of his life as a rookie monk who took over the temple as abbot after the death of his grandfather.

Story

• After having completed studies at Koyasan University of Monks, Susumu Shirakata returned home to Eifukuji where his grandfather resided as abbot. With no wish to become a monk, he took a job as a clerk at a local bookstore. But when his grandfather got a terminal cancer, Susumu decided to take over the temple at the age of 24 in the position of abbot.
• Now called Koen, the young abbot begins his new life as a monk, discovering that the world of a Buddhist monk is full of surprises: many of a monk’s needs are catered to by commercial suppliers, from an electric head shaver to a printer designed exclusively to print mortuary tablets. There is a bar frequented by monks, as well as an all-monk baseball team. He must be involved in complicated routines for the temple, but parish elders don’t seem to take the novice abbot seriously.
• Koen must also perform ceremonies, both funerals and weddings. As he presides over the marriage ceremony of his old love, he feels that being a Buddhist monk is to watch over people’s travels through life, from birth to death.
• The movie depicts Koen’s growing up process through a series of life events and trials with a warm, gentle touch.

Interview with Yukinori Makabe

• “I am a Monk” is Makabe’s directorial debut. He worked as an assistant director to Takashi Yamazaki during the filming of “Always - Sunset on Third Street.” His signature attention to visual details is visible in the film, specifically in the beautiful shots of Eifukuji and the neighboring sceneries.

• Q: What were your focal points in describing the process of Koen’s growth as a monk?

• Makabe: He tries many different things each time he is faced with problems. In the end it’s a repetition of the same thing each day, but overall this is a story of finding a way to become a better monk by paying close attention to how you live each day. So I used visual repetition in this movie to stress it.

• Q: The wedding scene of his old love – it’s a nice scene, isn’t it? Not painful to watch though we can feel how Koen must be feeling inside.

• Makabe: Typically a movie about Buddhist monks gets solemn and “heavy” with scenes of deaths and funerals. I didn’t want this movie like that, but wanted to mix and balance the funeral scenes with lighter, “pop” aspects of a young man’s growing-up story – being in love, drinking, etc.

• Q: Is there a drinking establishment for monks in real life, like the one in this movie?

• Makabe: As a rule, we shot this movie on actual locations described in the book, such as the Eifukuji temple, the bookstore he worked, and the bar where he drank with his friends. We couldn’t use the actual pub at Koyasan for shooting, but there is a place for monks to drink, and we emulated the real one in the movie.

• Q: How about the scene where Koen and the parish elder (Issei Ogata) stand on the top of a hill together?

• Makabe: That’s also an actual location, just above Eifukuji. Actually there are many other spots with a better view, but I chose the one that fits the story. In this industry quite often people shoot in Tokyo when the story is supposed to develop in the Ehime Prefecture, but for this film I didn’t want to do that. There is nothing epic about this story, and I really wanted to make it into a film that feels close to home.

• Q: As a 31-year-old director, how difficult was it to direct actors older than you?

• Makabe: I was certainly nervous at the beginning to direct veteran actors like Issei Ogata. But then I realized that I would undo what the staff has created by censoring myself with him and that I must speak up as a representative of all the staff. Also, being such a pro, Mr. Ogata makes sure to communicate thoroughly with the director, regardless of the age. So I think in a way this film was made with the help of experienced veteran actors.

• Q: How did you become a film director?

• Makabe: I didn’t watch Japanese movies much until the time I was in high school, when young directors such as Takeshi Kitano and Isao Yukisada began making movies and became known overseas. Then I started to shoot homemade films using my friend’s video camera.
• After studying law at Gakushuin University, I joined a film production company called Robot and learned movie-making as an assistant director for commercials and then for feature films. I learned on the job watching a director direct and thinking the way I would have done it instead.

• Q: Becoming a film director is very competitive. How did you make it?

• Makabe: You can make a short film with your cell-phone and screen it in a film festival, and then you’ll be a film director. However, I think that most candidates don’t have a clear vision of what movie you really want to make.
• I wanted to become a film director, so I joined Robot. I had a clear vision and kept talking about it from the beginning. That helped me a lot to become a director. “I am a Monk” is what I wanted to make. It is not a difficult movie to understand, and people in any age can enjoy watching it.

• Q: You wanted to become a film director, but you were a law student in college.

• Makabe: Yes, I was. When I was 18 or 19, I thought that it was better not to narrow my horizon if I would become a director and describe people in a film. Thus, I studied the law. I was also active in group activities and could have many different experiences. Once you have a job, you will learn about only a certain field.

• Q: Could you tell us about the next film?

• Makabe: I’ve been preparing one. “I am a Monk” was based on a real-story, so I want to write an original movie. I’ve been working on scripts. The theme will be a human life.

• Q: Could you tell us your wishes for the future?

• Makabe: Many Japanese baseball players have played abroad. That’s what we want, too! I want to entertain the people overseas, too. To do so, the Japanese film industry should work globally, but it hasn’t been active abroad so far. Our generation will work hard to do that.

• Thank you very much.


Director Yukinori Makabe