Sunday, May 15, 2011

SEESAW -- No budget cinema from Japan

I had the pleasure of watching Keihiro Kanyama's SEESAW at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. I actually went just to see VIA TEXT which was the short playing before the feature. VIA TEXT is a great short created by husband and wife Abe Forman-Greenwald and Lynn Chen, who are friends of mine and very awesome people (and the human's belonging to Julius, one of the best dogs in the world). The short was great (go Abe and Lynn) and happily the feature that followed the short turned out to be quite good too.

SEESAW follows the story of a young couple, Makoto and Shinji, in Tokyo. He's a former actor with a regular office job and she teaches Japanese. The title refers to a seesaw near their home that they play on and also to the structure of the movie. The first half is very happy, fun and care-free while the second is tragic and somber. We are given a glimpse of the tragedy that awaits us in the opening scene, so throughout the happy part we know what we're in for. The final moments of the film hint at a return to some kind of happiness for the characters so that we aren't left in despair. While I personally felt the film pushed the Happiness/Sadness envelopes a bit too far, over all I was very impressed by it. The film opens with a large birthday party that has a very naturalistic, Robert Altman feel. The characters are all likable, distinct and believable. The story is relevant and powerful, unlike some American no-budget films that sometimes have a tendency to read as pretentious.

As is my custom, I immediately sent off an email to the director to congratulate him and find out a bit more about himself and his filmmaking process. Turns out Keihiro is a true no-budget filmmaker of the highest order and that small, digital movies are becoming more and more common in Japan but seldom make it across the Ocean for audiences in the States to enjoy. Time to come up with a way to get these no-budget films from across the world (made without corporate or state funding) seen by the masses.

Keihiro directed as well as wrote and stars in the film as Shinji. But the film clearly lies on the very competent shoulders of Maki Murakami as the wonderfully perky and funny Makoto. We easily fall in love with her in the first half of the movie and are therefore all the more devastated as we watch her world fall apart around her.

The amazing Maki Murakami between takes.
Keihiro shot the film with a budget of merely $2,000. The main location is the couple's apartment, which is Keihiro's own apartment in real life. The park with the seesaw is in his neighborhood. All of the elements of the film were in place before they were written. This is a great lesson for the aspiring no budget filmmaker. Don't just write what you know, write what you have.

With that budget it is obvious that everyone worked for free.

He had a lot of rehearsals with his actors, and rewrote the script based on improvisation. I have seen this work successfully on multiple projects I have been involved with lately. It's a great way to get very naturalistic performances out of actors. Let them do what they might naturally do, then transcribe their actions into the script.

They shot on the very old school Panasonic DVX-100A, the last great SD camera. The camera was entirely hand held -- but never had a nauseating reality show feel, rather we felt like we were participating in the action.

Lighting Designer Yasuhiro Mutsuura wields a hand held light saber style florescent while
cinematographer Mizuki Nishida brandishes the DVX in the background. 

SEESAW is a great example of what can be done with just a little. The film won the top prize for a Japanese film at the Skip City Digital Film Festival in Saitama, Japan which is quickly becoming known as a hot spot for new voices in Japanese cinema. In summing up his experiences on SEESAW Keihiro tells me, "I have no regrets." What more could one say?

Follow SEESAW on Twitter at @seesaw_movie.

Maki introducing a scene from SEESAW at the Skip City Digital Film Festival. 


  1. abe and i (and julius) were excited to see ourselves in the blog post this morning!

  2. Ha--my 2nd film was shot on the DVX100A(and picked up by Lionsgate...). Great camera. We shot on the B next film, but after that it was hi-def...