Director Itsuji Itao on Bringing “Spark” to the Big Screen

still from the movie hibana showing two comedians standing in front of the microphone

Just over a year after Naoki Matayoshi‘s Akutagawa-prize winning novel Hibana was turned into ten-part drama series for Netflix, the story has now been adapted as a feature-length movie with well-known comedian Itsuji Itao taking on directing responsibilities. A well-known actor and one of the country’s leading comedians, he has been in the spotlight for many years, but doesn’t have as much experience as a filmmaker. So, given the success of the book and TV show, is the 54-year-old feeling the pressure?

“No, not really,” he says with a smile. “Matayoshi is my junior who I’ve known for many years so I’m fine directing his story. I was actually part of the script-writing team for the series, but after watching it I felt unfulfilled. It was made by a collection of directors who aren’t from the comedy world and as a result I thought certain scenes were unrealistic. With the movie I wanted to make what I believed was a closer representation of what the author was trying to say in the book.”

The story centers around a young comedian named Tokunaga who is played by popular up-and-coming actor Masaki Suda. He’s struggling to get his big break in the manzai industry alongside comic partner Yamashita (Shuji Kawatani). Along the way he has a chance encounter with enigmatic comedian Kamiya (Kenta Kiritani) who takes Tokunaga under his wing, teaching the apprentice his own philosophy of comedy. The pair embark on a journey together, before eventually following different paths.

“This is a film about comedians, but not a comedy,” says Itao. “It’s a coming-of-age drama that is quite sad and moving so the intention from the outset wasn’t to make viewers laugh. The manzai world may look fun, but at times it can be dark. There are many young talented people out there who know they are funny and believe that is enough. It isn’t. You need to convey your funniness and ideas by thinking about characters, setting and so on. This for me is one of the key features of Matayoshi’s novel. Just because people aren’t laughing at your jokes it doesn’t mean they don’t have a sense of humor. As a comedian even if you think something is interesting, if it is not going down well you need to work on expressing yourself better.”

photo of comedian itao itsuji
Itao Itsuji (Photo: ©YOSHIMOTO KOGYO CO., LTD.)

It is one of the big problems Tokunaga faces in the film. In one of the pivotal scenes he loses it on stage, telling the audience to all go and die, imitating his mentor Kamiya who did the same thing earlier in the movie. Itao says he never reacted in such an extreme way when he was performing, but admits to losing control on at least one occasion. “I was with my manzai partner and things were just flat and nobody was laughing. Somebody at the front said something along the lines of ‘try being funnier’ and I told him to shut up and basically yelled at everyone else to start listening properly. As I mentioned earlier, as a comedian you shouldn’t blame those watching if things aren’t going well, you need to look in the mirror.

“I think probably all comedians in Japan have had similar experiences to those told in the book,” Itao continues. “You’ve got the senior guy you look up to, the rivals, the women: it covers pretty much everything. For people in our industry the story is like everyday life and not so dramatic. Creating realistic scenarios, therefore, wasn’t a problem. The difficulty was the task of condensing a long narrative that spans ten years into a two-hour film. I just hope people enjoy it.”

Hibana: Spark opens in cinemas on November 23. For more information visit http://hibana-movie.com/

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