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Venice: Inside Japan’s Historic Filmmaker Sanctuary



Two of the most anticipated Japanese films showing at the Venice Film Festival this year — Kei Ishikawa’s mystery drama A Man (2022) and a digitally remastered version of Yasujirō Ozu’s timeless classic A Hen in the Wind (1948) — share a uniquely curious distinction. The two Japanese films, separated by 74 years, were both written in the exact same room.

Ozu, one of the great masters of cinema history, famously spent long stretches of the 1940s and 1950s — his most productive period — residing and working at Chigasaki-kan, a small ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn, located on a quiet stretch of coast. to the southwest of Tokyo. Ozu’s hideaway within the inn was its “niban no oheya,” or “room 2.” A modest space befitting an Ozu drama, the room was designed in Japan’s traditional washitsu style: tatami mats, a simple floor-level table and sliding shoji doors opening onto an immaculate contained garden — with a gate leading out onto the undisturbed beach of the open Pacific. Ozu wrote the bulk of his greatest works within Chigasaki-kan’s room 2 — including Tokyo Story (1953), The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952), Early Summer (1951), Late Spring (1949) and A Hen in the Wind (1948), among others — famously hosting long dinners of sukiyaki (a delectable Japanese hotpot dish) for his actors and collaborators there, and later shooting some of the projects in the surrounding area (cinephiles will recall the many key moments in an Ozu film that transpire in a seaside setting).

Contemporary filmmaker Kei Ishikawa, whose directorial debut Traces of Sin premiered to warm reviews in Venice’s Horizons section in 2017, says that he had occasionally heard about Chigasaki-kan over the years from film buff friends in Tokyo. Eventually, as he was preparing for his second film — the project that would become A Mana moody drama based on a novel by Japanese author Keiichiro Hirano and produced by Shochiku — Ishikawa decided to make a visit to the coast to check the place out.

“I was surprised to discover that the room where Ozu stayed is basically the same today as it was then, and you can freely rent it out,” he says. Ishikawa then did just that, booking room 2 and settling in for a lengthy stay to develop his ideas for A Man.

“I spent some time pondering what it must have been like during Ozu’s day,” Ishikawa says. But mostly, he took advantage of the inn’s quietude and preserved sense of seclusion to simply think and work. “There is no WiFi or internet access in the room, and at first I had trouble even finding a power outlet. And it took me a little while to get used to working at a low table. But all of those things became very beneficial,” he says. “It’s so peaceful.” Ishikawa enjoyed the inn’s seaside atmosphere so much that he later fully relocated to an apartment in the area from his former home in more central Tokyo.

Yasujiro’s Ozu’s A Hen in the Wind.

Courtesy Everett Collection

Chigasaki-kan was built by a former maritime engineer named Shinjiro Mori in 1899, at a time when the surrounding region was mostly just an undeveloped expanse of natural coastline. By the time of Ozu’s first visit in 1937, the inn had been run for nearly two decades by Shinjiro’s son and successor, Nobuyuki Mori. A bon vivant famous for cruising the coast on his motorcycle — a rarity in 1920s Japan — as well as for being among the very first to ride the local Shonan waves on a western style surfboard (his old wooden board is still displayed in Chigasaki-kan’s foyer), Nobuyuki was part of a colorful scene of authors, artists and filmmakers who began to gather in the Chigasaki area as it developed into a popular retreat for Tokyo trendsetters and intellectuals. Along with Ozu, other influential Japanese film figures to spend time at Chigasaki-kan included Kazuyuki Izutsu, Takai Yanai, Tadao Ikeda, Kogo Noda and others.

Most of their world is now gone. The city of Chigasaki is still blessed with a pleasant oceanside atmosphere, but its landscape long ago gave way to Tokyo’s endless post-war urban sprawl. Somehow, though, both the old ryokan and its connections to the Japanese film industry have endured.

Today, Chigasaki-kan remains in the Mori family and is run by the fifth generation heir, Hiroaki Mori. In 2009, the inn became Chigasaki’s first building to be officially registered as tangible architectural heritage. The late screenwriter and director Azuma Morisaki (best known for writing some of Yoji Yamada’s beloved comedies) bridged the old and new generation of filmmakers at Chigasaki-kan. The director began his career in the 1950s under contract at Shochiku, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that he started using Ozu’s room 2 as a regular writing space (Morisaki died in 2020). Other filmmakers to arrive at the ryokan to write in recent years have included Miwa Nishikawa (whose Under the Open Sky premiered in Toronto in 2020), and even the Hong Kong director Herman Yau, who set his 2016 film 77 Heartbreaks at Chigasaki-kan, telling a story about two Ozu fanatics who make a romantically misbegotten pilgrimage to the inn.

By far the most prominent denizen of room 2 today, though, is Japanese Palme d’Or winner Hirokazu Kore-eda. Like Ishikawa, Kore-eda says he first visited the inn on a lark, back in 2007 while he was writing his critically acclaimed feature. Still Walking. “I had heard that this was the inn where Yasujiro Ozu and Kogo Noda wrote the script for Tokyo Story, so at first I was just curious,” Kore-eda says. But when I stayed there, I realized that this place was indeed a place where I could feel the hustle and bustle of Tokyo recede. It is the perfect place to face my work.” Since 2007, Kore-eda has worked on every one of his scripts in room 2, including his Oscar nominated drama. Shoplifters and his recent Korean feature Broker.

Kore-eda is known in the Japanese film industry as a uniquely generous collaborator who strives to cultivate young talent (he’s currently showrunning an upcoming mini-series for Netflix that will feature aspiring young Japanese filmmakers helming each of the individual episodes — a deliberate attempt to leverage his reputation to create opportunities for new talent in Japan, he has said). Those exercises have extended into Chigasaki-kan. Every summer, Kore-eda’s production company Bunpuku holds a weeklong training camp for aspiring screenwriters and directors in the rooms around the inn’s garden.

“On the final day, we conduct a group review of everyone’s film proposals and scripts,” Kore-eda says. “And finally, afterwards, we have a big meal together — of the same sukiyaki dish that Yasujiro Ozu once loved.”

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