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Movie: “Yakiniku Dragon” Adopted from the Notable Play, Serious & Comedy Drama

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DP: Yutaka YAMAZAKI

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“Yakiniku Dragon” premiered as a stage play in 2008, written and directed by Wishing CHONG. It has received numerous theater awards and praise, and was staged again in 2011 and then in 2016. This is CHONG’s first feature film as a director, and will open in theaters on June 22.
The movie is set in the Kansai region, the site of the 1970 Osaka Expo, and tells the story of a Korean-Japanese family that runs a beef barbecue restaurant, “Yakiniku Dragon.” While addressing social themes like forced land acquisition, the story paints a light-hearted picture of a family and regional solidarity. In the words of the protagonist: “No matter what yesterday was like, tomorrow will be a good day.”
Yoko MAKI, Mao INOUE, and Nanami SAKURABA play the three sisters, and the cast also includes other popular and talented Japanese actors such as Yo OIZUMI. Well-known Korean actors Sang-ho KIM and Jung-Eun LEE round off the cast, creating a lively and heartwarming story.

With a realistic depiction of Japan’s rapid economic growth as its background, the story of one family was shot within the confined interior of a yakiniku restaurant. For this they used Toei Studios Kyoto’s largest set No.11. The camera was the VARICAM LT. The lens was the ULTRA PRIME.

DP Yutaka YAMAZAKI, graduated from Nihon University College of Art, Department of Cinema, and went on to work on many documentaries and documentary films, and as a CM DP. He was also the DP on Hirokazu KOREEDA’s “Wonderful Life” (1999), “Nobody Knows” (2004), “Our Little Sister” (2016), and has worked on many feature films and documentaries.

We spoke with him about his reasons for choosing the VARICAM LT.
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The importance of focus control in an ensemble drama

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My reason for choosing the VARICAM LT on “Yakiniku Dragon” was because principal shooting was going to be within the narrow confines of a yakiniku restaurant, and since the story involves an ensemble cast, I needed to be able to control the depth of field. Also, I had to shoot in that small space using a handheld and jib, so I went with something I could hold and was compact. There were a lot of actors, and many were on set simultaneously. As in a stage play, they were all performing at once. Rather than closing down the depth of field, I thought it would be better to go for pan focus. With the VARICAM LT’s dual native ISO feature, I could set the base sensitivity at ISO5000, and even if I lowered the gain, I could close down the aperture, allowing me to control the depth of field even in a dark interior. The Chief Cinematographer and the lighting team looked at the images and discussed everything: “Aperture would be 4” or “Close it down to 6.3 here” or “I want to close it down to 8” and then they could decide “Let’s shoot at ISO4000” or “Let’s go with ISO3200 here.” It was like in the past, when you shot movies with film and you were looking at the relationship between the shutter and the aperture.

An emotional story unfolds on-screen

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The recent trend is for images to have a shallow depth of field, and there’s no denying that it looks good in a single image. Of course this would also make sense to use in horror and major action movies, where you are showing a world that is far removed from the everyday. This is just my personal opinion, but you aren’t meant to see only one “frame” when you’re watching a movie. The images are important, but it’s the people, the lives they lead and the expression of their feelings that are what you’re meant to see.
Of course, the world depicted on the big screen is different from everyday life, and it’s not something you need in your everyday life, but like in this case, you aren’t being asked to look at the images or the artistry. You are being asked to witness what happens in the lives of ordinary people – their anxieties, their sadness, their anger – and how their stories evolve through their performances on screen.
The director Naomi KAWASE often says, “Don’t act; just be.” When you watch a movie with that thought in mind, images that intentionally use bokeh or artwork that has been heavily edited might be aesthetically pleasing in a photographic sense, but when that becomes the focus, you tend to lose sight of the performance and the humanity. It’s something I think about.

What lens did you use?

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I used the Ultra Prime with a PL mount. Both for budgetary reasons and because you can use it with the Varicam LT and ISO5000. I didn’t use the F1.3 Master Prime at all. I used the 32mm, 40mm, 50mm, 65mm, and 85mm for different situations. My favorites were the 40mm and the 65mm. The 85mm put me too far [from the actors] to use in a small room, and I was too close with the 50mm. At times it wasn’t about the size, but more about the distance from the camera. Because I shoot documentaries, I’m aware that the distance between the subject and the camera can change the entire mood of a close-up.

Do you shoot with a wide angle or zoom lens?

I used a wide angle when I was shooting a painting, but I didn’t use it much in this movie. If you use a wide angle in a small space, the room ends up looking spacious, so I didn’t use anything that was obviously wide. There are times I do use it, like when there won’t be any distortion or when I need to shoot a large painting.
I don’t use zoom in movies. Zoom can be so arbitrary. Zooming can appear much more arbitrary than what the camera’s movement shows you. When I know exactly how I want something to look, I will use the zoom, but I don’t use it for anything other than a thrilling scene, even in a family drama.

Creating an optimistic mood on the set of a family drama

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The majority of the shoot was on a set this time. Originally I’d intended to use an open set at Shochiku, but the stage was booked and we ended up using Toei. We actually tried to shoot part of the movie at Shochiku’s open set, but if we were to reserve both sets in case of inclement weather, we would have had to have all the same furnishings on both sets. Sure, both studios are located in Uzumasa, but it would have been too much to move all the furnishings back and forth between Shochiku and Toei numerous times. So we ended up using Toei’s largest stage, and we shot more than 80% of the movie on that set.

Did you make changes at the end?

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Following up on serious social themes addressed by directors Shohei Imamura and Kohei Oguri, “Yakiniku Dragon” integrates serious social commentary into a family drama, but I didn’t want it to be all about social advocacy, as the idea that “no matter what yesterday was like, things’ll be better tomorrow” is at the heart of the movie. So you’ll see a lot of color, it’s all on set, and it was originally a stage play, so to a certain degree the actors’ performances reflect this fact. That said, I also wanted to create an optimistic family drama with an everyday feel. I did at one point consider making it more subdued, but I just lowered the saturation a bit and kept the warm tones.
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Theatrical release (domestic): June 22
©2018 “Yakiniku Dragon” film partners

“Yakiniku Dragon”
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