Koto, the Film, and Preserving Traditional Culture with New Generations

Japan Center directors Mariko Yokosuka and Kyoko Takano write on a recent visit and educational collaboration with the director, producer and executive producer of the film Koto.

On Monday, September 25th, we hosted a visit from the film crew of Koto (古都 ). Koto is a film adaptation of the treasured novel of the same name (published as The Old Capital) by Yasunari Kawabata (川端康成 ), the first Japanese author to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Amongst the remarkable landscapes of Japan’s ancient capital, Kyoto, the novel weaves a story of the surprising reunion of twin sisters who are separated at birth, with an extraordinary depiction of the city’s beauty and sorrows, the splendor of its seasons and its traditional and sublime cultural arts.

The film is a sequel to this story, as their own daughters face the future of selecting an established path—to continue in the footsteps of their family business—or pave a path of their own. Set in two of the world’s most beloved and representative ancient capitals, Kyoto and Paris, Koto begs the question, “Can traditional cultural survive in a new generation?”

Jeff Wexler, the film’s executive and subtitling producer, is an ASIJ parent whom we have worked with previously through Ghibli Week. Award-winning director Yuki Saito and producer Chikara Ito joined Jeff during an activity period assembly attended by interested high school and middle school students. Immediately following the assembly, the film crew took part in two in-class discussions with Ryosuke Suzuki’s (high school Japanese) innovation and entrepreneurship class as well as Kyoko Inahara’s (high school Japanese) comparative culture class.

During the assembly, both the director and producer shared their favorite scenes as well as plenty of behind-the-scenes content from the film, highlighting, for instance, that the film has a deliberate lack of dialogue and unrushed pace of cinematography. In fact, the script is about one-tenth the length of a standard script, placing importance on conveying the message through actions, gestures and facial expressions rather than through words. They used slower transitions from scene to scene to uphold the spirit of the novel, as if the audience were turning pages of a book.

Jeff also explored one of the more difficult tasks for him and his team—translating the Kansai dialect phrase of o-kini (おおきに) with the proper meaning. While the literal translation is “thank you,” it is often used to express different feelings and thoughts by using different tones. This resonated with students as they are reminded that translation demands a deep understanding of not only language or grammar but culture and habits of the people who speak the language.

Translating for Yuki and Chikara, sophomores Sasha Sasanuma and Masa Kawasaki impressed the film crew and the audience as they interpreted the director and producer’s remarks from Japanese to English throughout the assembly, applying what they are learning in the classroom to that situation.

Both Ryosuke and Kyoko have used this film in class.

High school junior, Karen Aoki, explains that in her comparative culture class they separated into groups to discuss their ideas on the prompt, “Should we inherit traditional culture?” There were both affirmative and negative opinions on the matter, while some students chose to remain neutral. After hearing the discussion, the director, producer, and executive producer of the film explained how each student was right, as there is no correct answer to resolve such a complex topic. They claimed that just like the ending of film where one character was left with her choices for her future, it is up to each individual to know their options from different perspectives and think about what he or she would like to do next.

The key point, as freshman Toko Takeishi recalls, was not about the path they decide to take at the end, but about the path they take to make that decision. In the movie Koto, the path that the main characters took in order to make the decision was to leave Kyoto and experience many conflicts in other cultures which, in the film, led the characters to Paris. “When you live your whole life in one place, you never get a chance to actually think about the value of all the amazing cultures surrounding you.” Toko goes on to say “watching this movie made me realize the importance of knowing my culture to a deeper level.”

In the entrepreneurship and innovation class, students discussed what the filmmakers were trying to say through their work.

Sasha mentions that first they were trying to tell us that as young people it is easy to dismiss the culture that we live in and try to move on. However, through the hardships and the experiences they had overseas, they were finally able to realize how beautiful the Kyoto culture was. “I can see how this closely relates to my generation as we don’t always see the opportunities that surround us. The second, most important, message is that there is a dying culture in Kyoto. The modern world is failing to preserve the traditional culture and big corporations and construction companies are taking over. It is important for the younger generation to know about this issue because we will be leading the work force in a couple of years, and when that time comes it will be up to us to pay attention to traditional cultures and make efforts to preserve it.”

Project Koto continued during the week of October 2 when all grade 8 students had the opportunity to watch the film as part of their culture week activities, along with experiencing hands-on workshops by masters in wagashi (Japanese sweet making), sumie (calligraphy art), and tea ceremony.

On behalf of the school, we thank Jeff Wexler, Director Yuki Saito, and Producer Chikara Ito once again for bringing learning and culture to ASIJ!

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