Filmart: How Japanese Director Yōjirō Takita Overcame Culture Shock with Chinese-language ‘Silence of Smoke’

Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival
Yōjirō Takita

The Oscar-winning ‘Departures’ helmer co-wrote and directed the drama about a family of cake makers wrestling with a generational divide.

Oscar-winning Japanese director Yōjirō Takita believes the vast movie-going audience in China deserve more mature entertainment.

“The film industry in China today is skewed toward the young audience,” Takita tells The Hollywood Reporter. “But I think through life, there are many inevitable experiences, and I think the audience deserves the chance to watch films about them.”

Ever since Takita took home the Academy Awards for best-foreign-language film award with Departures in 2009, he has been bombarded by offers from Hollywood, China and Hong Kong. He has been in talks with Hollywood studios as well as Netflix, but no deals have been sealed yet.

With his latest release, the Chinese-language Silence of Smoke, presented by China’s Magilm Pictures, Beijing Orange Letter Media and Hong Kong’s Media Asia, Takita has made his first film outside of Japan with a script that he co-wrote. The cast includes former K-pop boy bandmember Han Geng (So Young, A Chinese Odyssey: Part Three), and screen veterans Zhang Guoli (Back to 1942) and Summer Xu (The Founding of a Republic).

With filmmakers everywhere eyeing the mammoth Chinese market, Takita considered a deep integration between the Japanese and Chinese film industries on a co-production to be unlikely. But with Smoke he feels he is helping to close that gap. “The Japan and Chinese film industries have very different modes of operation. I think the way to go forward for Japan to work with China in co-productions is to have a Japanese director overseeing a Chinese production, just like what we did on Silence of Smoke. The two industries coming together would be like a marriage.”

Adapted from a novella by Chinese writer Xin You, Silence of Smoke tells the story of a family that has been dedicated to making cakes for eight generations. It centers on a secret ingredient in the cake that the father doesn’t reveal to his son, even when he passes his business to the son on his deathbed. The tension between accepting or rejecting tradition and legacy is the element that attracted Takita’s to the project. “The 2008 Olympic Games in China is a big symbol for China making big leaps into modernity, and the modern and present taking over the traditional and the past," he says. "It means that a lot of traditions cannot be kept. It’s happening all over the world. With the Japan 2020 Olympics it is the same thing. We are constantly struggling between keeping and learning from traditions, or letting them go.”

With favoritism and generational difference as the film's themes, Takita says he was surprised by the cultural differences between Chinese and Japanese crews during the shoot. “In the film, the son runs away, and when he returns, he and his father reconcile without issue. It struck me as odd," Takita says. “When we were making the film, I found the younger people in the crew would speak their minds to their elders and expressed their opinions, which is a good thing. But that’s not the norm in Japan, where the young people are more used to being deferential.”

Working in a language he doesn’t speak a word of, proper communication was perhaps Takita's greatest challenge on set. “It makes me worry to think about whether my exact meanings and directions were getting through to the cast and crew through an interpreter, or if something was lost in translation," he says. "But working with the actors were not too difficult, as a good actor can convey the emotion. Since I co-wrote the script and knew the lines, I could see the performance through the tones and rhythms of their voice and their gestures and movements. Zhang Guoli and Han Geng are both very good actors. The good ones think of the whole scene, not just act their own parts.”