Welsh filmmaker John Williams deals with theme of exile in 'Sado Tempest'
In 2011, Welsh filmmaker John Williams, who has lived in Japan since 1988, was invited by the Film Commission on Sado Island off the coast of Niigata Prefecture to come and explore the locations with a view to making a film there.
“Since the Lehman shock in Japan, there had been a general sense of catastrophe hanging over the whole country,” he recounts. “Sado seemed to symbolize the absolute zenith of this catastrophe. Sado was once one of the richest parts of Japan with a gold mine that produced much of Japan’s wealth, a thriving fishing industry and the best rice in the country. Now the gold mine is a spectacular ruin, the fishing industry in decline and the population has decreased to a low of 60,000 people. At the current depopulation rate, the island will be deserted within 40 years.”
And yet, Williams adds, Sado Island is a kind of floating cultural treasure house, the legacy of the artists, intellectuals and religious figures who were exiled there throughout the ages. The emperor and poet Juntoku was exiled there in the middle ages and later the noh playwright Zeami and the Buddhist priest Nichiren. “Oni Daiko” or demon drumming (which inspired the world famous Kodo drummers) exists in every village, farmers perform noh plays and the island is dotted with beautiful temples. It is also a natural paradise in summer and in the mountains in the center there is a grove of beautiful cedar trees, twisted into bizarre shapes by the wind, some of them over 1,000 years old.
“When I suggested making a film based on the theme of exile, there was some resistance at first, as this is also a painful and embarrassing subject on the island, but the young team at the Film Commission were supportive of the idea and we finally managed to film in March and then later in the summer of 2011.”
The result is “Sado Tempest,” a dysfunctional version of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” filmed entirely on Sado
Island. The film blends the traditional culture of the island and Shakespeare’s mysterious last play about exile, with Japanese rock music, to create a bizarre mirror of modern Japan.
Set in the near future, rebel rock singer Jun Tokushima (Juntoku) is exiled with his band to Sado. The island has fallen into permanent winter after a terrible storm that destroyed the secret genetic laboratory of Omuro (Prospero). His daughter, Miranda, has gone crazy and is now the mistress of the brutal head of the prison, Sugi (Caliban). Jun escapes and wanders the island, encountering cannibals and demons. The demons lead him inland, where he meets Omuro, who also seems to have gone crazy. Jun is recaptured and sets to work to try to piece together the broken fragments of the demon songs, in an attempt to bring back the spring. But just as he is about to complete the song, Sekihara, the head of the secret police, who exiled Jun, turns up on the island and reveals that he sent Jun there to lure Omuro out of hiding and destroy him.
Five days into the shoot, the March 11 disaster struck the opposite coast of Japan. Hirotaro Honda, who plays the Prospero character, phoned from Tokyo, Williams recalls. “We thought he was phoning to apologize for dropping out of the film, but he said that he believed it was more important than ever to finish the film, which ends with a message of hope and regeneration. Thanks to him and the other actors and crew who decided to continue the shoot, we managed to finish this film.”
“Sado Tempest” is Williams’ third Japanese-language film. After studying French and German Literature at Trinity College, Cambridge, he worked as a French teacher in North London for two years before moving to Nagoya in 1988 to teach English. But he didn’t give up his interest in filmmaking and in 1999, he founded 100 Meter Films. Williams produced, wrote and directed eight short films and a documentary about human rights abuses in Sri Lanka before releasing his debut Japanese language feature, “Firefly Dreams” (2001). He was nominated for Best New Director by the Directors Guild of Japan for this film, which also won numerous international film awards. He completed a second feature, “Starfish Hotel” in 2007, co-produced a documentary with Holland, wrote a third feature, and developed a slate of feature films for international co-production.
“Sado Tempest” will open on Saturday 16 at Eurospace cinema in Shibuya and will run for three weeks. It will have English subtitles.