Meniscus asks director Atsushi Funahashi about…NMB48

Born and raised in Japan, and trained at the School of Visual Arts in New York, film director Atsushi Funahashi has tackled a variety of heavy subjects in both his feature and documentary films.  The majority of his recent work during the past few years, including “Nuclear Nation,” “Nuclear Nation 2” and “Cold Bloom,” have dealt with the aftermath and emotional fallout following the March 11 tsunami, earthquake and technological disasters in Fukushima.

So was Funahashi’s latest film – a documentary on one of the giant J-pop girl idol groups in Japan – a way to take a break from the burden of his previous material?  Or was he secretly a fan of NMB48?

The answer to both questions: no.  In fact, an unlikely source asked him to direct what eventually became “Raise Your Arms and Twist – Documentary of NMB48,” which made its international premiere at the 2016 Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF).  At a question-and-answer panel held at Hong Kong University, I asked Funahashi how the film came to be.  (The panel was part of a weeklong inaugural Dialogue with Filmmakers series run by the Hong Kong Documentary Initiative that featured select HKIFF directors.)

Yuan-Kwan Chan: I wanted to know how you got the idea for the film and how you approached it, particularly since a different director did the documentary trilogy on AKB48 not too long ago.

Atsushi Funahashi: [long pause] I was not really interested in idols.  At all.  As you see, I was shooting documentaries in Fukushima, pretty much.  Then Akimoto Yasushi – the producer, the mastermind of this AKB48 group…and also he’s the songwriter of all the songs of AKB48 and NMB48 – saw “Nuclear Nation,” my movie.  That was back then, already 2015, and then they were in the midst of a discussion.

They already made four or five documentaries about AKB48 and SKE48, and then they wanted to make another one for NMB48.  But they all looked the same.  So they had a difficulty to differentiate.  ‘Okay, we’re going to make it something different.  So how can we do it?  We got to do something drastic.  Maybe we have to have someone who doesn’t have any idea about the idols and make him make a movie.’  That’s why he approached me, actually.  So when this offer came to me, I was like, ‘What?!’  Because I [didn’t] even [know] a name of a girl, one girl.  I didn’t know anyone.  I didn’t know anyone in AKB48 and I didn’t know anyone in NMB48.

So I was like, ‘Okay.  You know, I have no idea what you are talking about.  But if you agree with the idea, I will make a documentary from an outsider’s point of view, and immersing into this community of idols.  Because I like making movies about community, not focusing on one person but making a big group of people, like the way I made “Nuclear Nation.”  If you like this approach, then I will make a movie.’  Then he said, ‘Fine.’

This is pretty much the biggest difference from other documentaries of AKB48 and other movies.  This is not for the idol geeks.  It’s for the first-timers, for the outsiders.  So that’s the approach I chose.

To learn more about the Hong Kong Documentary Initiative, go to hkdocumentary.com.

Video: Director Atsushi Funahashi – Hong Kong Documentary Initiative, Mar. 31, 2016, Hong Kong University
video by Yuan-Kwan Chan / Meniscus Magazine

Video: Director Atsushi Funahashi, NMB48 members Sayaka Yamamoto and Fūko Yagura – Hong Kong International Film Festival press conference, Apr. 3, 2016
video by Yuan-Kwan Chan / Meniscus Magazine

Video: Trailer – “Raise Your Arms and Twist – Documentary of NMB48”