Interview with the Director, Cinematographer, and Producer of Bleached Bones Avenue [OAFF 2020]

Bleached Bones Avenue is director Akio Fujimoto’s follow-up to his drama Passage of Life (2017). It is another film that looks at the shared links between Japan and Myanmar but this time, instead of a family drama, it is unearthing history.

Deep in the hills of Myanmar’s Chin state, Fujimoto and his crew met with a group of people who are dedicated to recovering the bones of Japanese soldiers who died during the Imphal campaign. It was a reckless attack by poorly supplied soldiers who were forced into a gruelling retreat through tough terrain and severe monsoon rains. Beset by malaria and dysentery, a lack of food and medical supplies, many men became sick and many perished, their bodies decomposing in the places they fell. The route they took became known as Hakkotsu Kaido, or “Bleached Bones Avenue” in English. The local hill tribes who experienced these events have passed on their memories to their descendants who Fujimoto and his crew observe for this 16 minute film that connects past and present in a unique way.

Bleached Bones Avenue director Akio Fujimoto, actor and cinematographer Kentaro Kishi and producer Kazutaka Watanabe went into fascinating detail when they sat down to discuss their short.

This interview was conducted with the help of Kazutaka Watanabe’s lively interpretation.

Thank you for doing the interview. Why did you go to Myanmar to make films?

Akio Fujimoto: I first went to Myanmar because of the Passage of Life project. Kazutaka Watanabe’s company put out a call for different projects that could be shot in Myanmar. I applied and was chosen. It was actually the first South East Asian country that I visited.

So Passage of Life was your first collaboration together and just like that film, this one feels like a cross between documentary and fiction. How did you hear about the Zomi people and why did you want to film them?

Fujimoto: When we were doing fieldwork for Passage of Life in 2013, we met an old lady who sold vegetables and we interviewed her. She told us about how, during the war, she met some Japanese soldiers and she saw them killing her family so she had to flee into the mountains. She also told us how we were the first Japanese people she had met since the war. Hearing this, I felt like, “the war happened here.” In Japan, we only hear about the war from the Japanese point of view so this was my first time thinking about the war from the local people’s point of view and how they relate to Japanese people. That was my first motivation.

We told the old lady we were going to shoot Passage of Life here and the old lady prayed for us. After I received the prayer, I felt a little like I needed to reply. Maybe this is me thinking about the war from my point of view and that would be like a reply to the prayer.

Our cinematographer, Kentaro Kishi’s grandfather died in the battle of Imphal. Kishi-san’s father was still in his mother’s womb so he never met his father and only heard about him in stories. We knew that Kishi-san also had a special feeling about this battle and Myanmar so I wanted him to come with us to do something using what he feels and what he can do in the field.

Also, there is a lot of footage reproducing how the war was but I wanted to do research and fieldwork from the present and not in the past.

Why did you choose a short film format?

Fujimoto: My first motivation was not to make the film but to know. To see the environment and listen to the people who were alive during that period. They are old and we know that they will die pretty soon so we wanted to go there and see the place and learn from the people rather than just “shoot the film.” I was also thinking about the people who are in Japan, the relatives of those who died in Myanmar. I heard that they occasionally plan to travel to Myanmar to pray but they cannot go deep into the mountains. When we had the chance to go there, we wanted to record images and take it back for the relatives so that was another reason to go.

We had one week of interviews where we were going to various villages and then we shot the film for a day and a half but we wanted to see how they dig up the bones so they said that they could gather the staff. Then I started writing the script and started shooting the process of them digging for a day and a half. The way we shot was we asked for specific locations and asked them to proceed. The digging and stuff, we left it to them. We didn’t tell them to wear costumes and shoes so when we shot, we see them with sandals while digging. It’s dangerous but it’s their style so we shot it.

When we were shooting the footage, it was from Kishi-san’s point of view. He has a special feeling so his camera expresses something unique. In that sense, you can say the film itself is his own document. This isn’t a documentary, it is him recording his feeling in the film as a cameraman. So there is the first scene, shot in black and white and with the sound of breathing. That is Kishi’s breathing. That moment is like him with nobody around. He thought he wanted to shoot it as if he is his grandfather reaching that point and seeing the beautiful scenery after the war ends. Like, he has to go back and he is starving and maybe he is sick, but still, he goes to a point with beautiful scenery. He’s not just a cinematographer at that moment, he’s also acting. He felt, when watching the footage, like he’s really there.

Kishi: When I was contacted, I was not asked to be there just as a cinematographer but as a person who lost his grandfather there so I was open to doing different things that spontaneously came up in my mind. That leads to the first scene. The director felt that this act itself is a cinematic act.

The first scene was done after the last scene which was shot from a high position, so I had to climb down the hill and reach the point from which we see the beautiful view. At that point I felt, “oh, maybe this is a moment my grandfather saw.” That sense led me to record the video and I was moved to tears while shooting.

Fujimoto: The act of digging the bones is like digging the past. This is connecting the past and the present. The way we shot the first scene is like thinking about the past and bringing it into the present. This is the structure. The local Zomi people and the audience are watching the same scenery. This is overarching everything. We are recalling everything because of the land. This made me feel like this production itself is very interesting. We weren’t aiming for a short film but when we reviewed all of the material it became a 16 minute film.

[To Kentaro Kishi] As a cinematographer, did you make any plans before the shoot?

Kishi: I didn’t really have a shooting plan in mind, it was more like, how we were going to make this film. We saw the main theme as being like a prayer for the soldiers and people who died. After we decided to shoot, we initially talked about the various ways we could finish the film, such as a shot of Japanese soldiers going into the river, but when we started shooting we forgot everything.

The terrain is mountainous. How difficult was it to shoot there?

Fujimoto: There was one point, when we were in a deep valley, there was the wreckage of a tank, and the guides really wanted to take us there so all of the staff went except me. Even Kishi-san went with his heavy camera since he was shooting. I was the only one who couldn’t make it there [laughter]. He was like, “where is the director, where is the director?” and he gave up [laughter].

When I heard war stories, it never felt real in my body and my mind, but after experiencing how difficult it was going into deep valleys, these stories are even more unreal for me. I cannot imagine how the soldiers were in the jungle.

Kishi: Where we were shooting, there is a road. The landscape hasn’t changed much, but in those days there was no road and thousands of people travelled along that route to Imphal and they were carrying equipment weighing 20 kilos along that route. The tanks were dismantled into many parts and everyone had to carry something. They also had cows, but they lost most of them on the way. So, together they went the whole way. To get to the point where we shot, near the border of India and Myanmar, by car, that’s like 10 hours. We went from a hub city that has an airport that is located at the foot of the mountains. When we went back. it was 12 hours. It’s hard to express in words what it must have been like for the people back then.

Fujimoto: I don’t know how much the audience can feel it but in the last scene, the last line of dialogue as we look from a mountain into the distance is, “That’s India.” That means, Imphal is over there so we have to go down through all of the clouds and through the dense jungle. It’s a cruel thing. The scenery is so beautiful but if you imagine walking all the way to India from where we shot, the path contains a lot of death.

At one point you have a shot of a soldier watching the Zomi people so that was also to bring the fallen soldiers of the past back into the present?

Fujimoto: That was exactly the vision I had. I am amazed you can tell it is a soldier because there are many that cannot tell. You mentioned that it is a fallen soldier, however, as it is a film it could be anything in the way audience imagines it. Another thing is, when we were shooting, Kishi-san was always saying he felt like somebody was watching us. He felt that many times during the production. That was an influence.

Kishi: I felt that there was someone, somewhere, in a place that cannot be seen. Maybe it was an animal but I felt something.

Fujimoto: [Laughter] When he felt something was looking at us, he shot the image. That place itself is very strange. When we put just one cut of the image there, it makes the cut even more unique and strange and interesting.

Kishi: The image of the eyes, we shot in Tokyo.

Ooooooohhh… [Laughter]

Fujimoto: We dug a deep hole near Kishi’s house. It was during a cold winter and we asked a friend that looked like a Japanese soldier from the war. He was half-naked and we shot him coming out of the hole. It took many hours to dig the hole and shoot a lot of footage but the only footage that we used was the eyes.

Watanabe: I was not there but our filmmaking is like that. We plan and we prepare things but sometimes we don’t use them. Sometimes the situation changes so we spontaneously jump on new possibilities even if we have been working on something for many hours. That’s our style. We are just trying to be sincere to what we need to shoot.

The final result feels organic and captures the subject in a new way.

Watanabe: The image of the eyes really makes the film organic but it’s based on how Kishi-san felt and how Fujimoto director utilised that feeling so it’s all built up to make the image. Maybe that’s why you feel it’s organic. Maybe if we didn’t have the image of the eyes it would make us feel like this just a series of footage so it would have been difficult to know how this film wants to tell itself and how we want to convey the message.

It gives it a dimension of linking back to the past. It’s not just dry facts and figures that you can get in a textbook.

Fujimoto: This was my first time doing this much spontaneous acting and directing. It was strange. I felt like it was vague. We went from fieldwork to shooting straight away like there’s no real divide. I’m shooting and learning at the same time. We weren’t aiming to do the production, it just happened.

Watanabe: There were only five Japanese members of staff, us three, Yuuki Yaei for sound and Yuki Kitagawa as associate producer. Half of the cast were real but we were putting in extras from the drivers and people we knew. Everyone is acting so natural so it is hard to tell the difference between people, but we shot it like that. We asked everyone to gather on that day and then we shot.

Will you ever revisit the subject again?

Fujimoto:  A real digging project goes on. It takes three months. They do research and dig in places, and once they find the bones, the Japanese client comes and they complete the project. Whenever there was a chance, I wanted to go and participate in the digging project and maybe shoot. That’s, not necessarily my intention, but something I want to do in the future.I don’t know whether it’s going to be a documentary but it’s something I want to observe. I want to see how local people meet and communicate with the Japanese association staff.

The bones and objects, the relics of the war, were they discovered during the shoot?

Watanabe: No, they already had them and they were stored.

How did you find interacting with the Zomi people?

Fujimoto: In 2019 I lived and worked in Yangon for one year so I was communicating with many people and most of them are from Burmese tribes. There are many indigenous tribes in Myanmar, they say more than 130, and Zomi are one of the more local indigenous people but they are small in number compared to Burmese tribes. They are like locals in the countryside who live simple lives. After communicating with them, I could imagine how their characteristics might not have changed so much over time and how they would be during the war and I could see why Japanese soldiers would ask a lot from them and how these villagers would react to them the same way they react to us.

What do you hope audiences take away from the film?

Kishi: Film is a special format when compared to things like TV programmes and dramas. The important factor is that films can light up places that people don’t see. They can provide more access and information and help people learn experiences by re-performing what happened in the past and what is going on in the present. From that aspect, this film could be a precious experience for the audience. This can mean a lot for Japanese people. Not only Japanese people but, as you told us how you felt, this can affect different audiences.

Watanabe: For me, this is produced from an Asian perspective, shot in an Asian country and relating to the relationship between Asians. It’s so natural, so in the end, the film becomes unique.

Many different elements affected the production but the motivation that they have is so pure and that pure motivation can make something organic and that organic stuff is what stays. The style we do, the way we shot, is already interesting and the material we have is so precious.

Fujimoto: In this film, I don’t emphasise anything with close ups or special effects. It is only the cloud scene where the audience might think we are focussing on something in particular. That means we have some kind of distance between the objects and the actions. That leads the audience to various ways of comprehension. I expect the audience to comprehend and understand in their own way. I have already explained about the dialogue but even with that, the audience can hear a simple meaning like “there’s India,” but, through the images, you can show something deeper like “imagine walking there.” In this way, there are simple elements used but if you imagine and comprehend each element, then you can feel and use your imagination in your own way. When audiences watch the film, they may not imagine a lot, but after watching the film their imagination will work with their memory to interpret it. That’s the part I also enjoy. It’s not really a message but I feel like that.

Bleached Bones Avenue was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 10 and 14.