The Japanese Jologs Who Loves Smokey Mountain

 Kohki Hasei (center) with Blanka stars Peter Mallari, a blind street musician, and Cydel Gabutero

Kohki Hasei (center) with Blanka stars Peter Mallari, a blind street musician, and Cydel Gabutero

"The children of Manila’s slums have given me more strength, inspiration and hope than anything else in my life,” declares the Japanese filmmaker Kohki Hasei, who has been to more than 25 countries in the last 20 odd years, “wandering the world like a dog,” as he puts it. Manila has become a constant destination to which he has returned nearly every year for the past decade.

Hasei’s short film, “Godog,” is a lyrical 17-minute paean to the children of Smokey Mountain. He was the director, editor, cinematographer and producer all in one. The film won the first prize at the 2009 Kustendorf film festival in Serbia. The filmmaker and jazz musician Emir Kusturica, who founded the festival, has himself won the Cannes Palme d'Or twice and directed or produced internationally acclaimed feature films like “Arizona Dreams” with Johnny Depp. In 2008, after making “Godog,” Hasei met Kusturica in South Korea. He was filming the concert tour of Kusturica’s “No Smoking Band,” which is popular in Japan. Kusturica was so impressed with Hasei’s work that he invited him to Serbia. For two years, Hasei was a sort of artist-in-residence at Kusturica’s country house in Drvengrad. While there, he converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity and was christened Stefan, with Kusturica and his wife standing as his godparents.

It was 12 years ago that Hasei first saw photos of Tondo street gangs taken by another Japanese photographer. He immediately knew then that he had to go to Manila to experience it for himself. On this first visit, he stayed at a P350-a-night pension where he shared the bathroom with strangers and dined mostly in carinderias (greasy spoons). Soon he was felled by a virus, which left him so weak and dehydrated he could not keep from weeping out of sheer desperation. After several days, hunger forced him to rise from his sick bed. One of his few friends then, the cigarette vendor from whom he bought Marlboro reds, noticed he was disturbingly pale and weak and asked him where he had been for the last few days. Hasei spoke little English and no Filipino at all then, but through mimed gestures he made the boy understand what he’d been through. The little cigarette vendor bought him an energy drink and an anti-diarrheal tablet with his own meager earnings. Hasei was deeply moved by this kindness from one who had so little in life. Further, his experiences over the past decade and more in such blighted urban communities as Del Pan, Ermita and Smokey Mountain, have shown him that such kindness was more common than rare. From his first visit he never feared venturing out alone in Tondo, on jeeps and tricycles laden with his video and still cameras. He shrugged off warnings that he might get mugged for his equipment and digital gadgets. “I don’t look rich anyway,” he says.

 Hasei (second from right) reuniting with Godog actors 8 years after

Hasei (second from right) reuniting with Godog actors 8 years after

 Hasei on a  padyak  (customized motorcycle)

Hasei on a padyak (customized motorcycle)

Filmmaking is Hasei’s singular passion for which he had no formal training. Apart from “Godog,” Hasei made other shorts in Manila: i.e., “Luha sa Disyerto,” “Sunny Boy” and “Showreel.” His first documentary, “W/O,” won the 2001 Seoul Net Digital Express Prize and was in the Austrian Biennale and the New York MOMA and Rotterdam Film Festivals. He is from a working class family. His mother ran a beauty salon; his father sold construction equipment and his younger brother has a tailoring shop. After he graduated from a public high school in his hometown, Okayama, near Hiroshima, he made his way to Tokyo. He supported himself through various menial jobs as a laborer on a road repair crew, janitor, bouncer or waiter at so-called ladies’ clubs (which have exclusive male clienteles), gofer at a TV station (where he learned some video technology but could not get ahead), model and actor. There was even a brief stint to physically bring back for deprogramming a young girl who had joined the terrorist Aum Shinrikyo cult.

“That one paid good money, like US$40 an hour, but when my friend and I didn’t get her on the first stakeout, her mother cried so hard, I just couldn’t handle it,” he recalls. He had been a gas station attendant, and remarks on how different that job was done in Tokyo where the rich were exceedingly so. “Some of these really wealthy Japanese were so particular when I had to wash their cars, they wouldn’t have me use a sponge or a high pressure hose because these might leave scuff marks or scratch the finish. They ordered me to soap the car with just my bare open palms. I had to be very gentle and do this oh so slowly, then wipe it dry and buff it with a fine chamois. I did this even in winter, in below freezing temperatures.”

Although all he has is a high school diploma, Kohki Hasei is proud to now be a member of the Venice International Biennale College Cinema, which gave one of three grants to his film proposal, “Blanka,” choosing it from among over 400 entries. Hasei’s first full-length feature is a bittersweet, poignant tale of a young girl, the Blanka of the film’s title, who was abandoned by her mother and lives by her wits on the streets of Manila. It was shot entirely on location with a cast made up mainly of non-professional actors, although Cydel Gabutero, who plays Blanka, is a YouTube singing sensation in her own right.

 Hasei all cleaned up

Hasei all cleaned up

It has been a long, winding and often rough road for Hasei to get to the Venice International Film Festival where “Blanka” will have its premiere this September. Hasei joked that the only time he went to college was when he was among over 50 other squatters who, for nearly two years, occupied one condemned building that was part of a complex of student dormitories in Tokyo University. Fresh out of his teens then, Hasei, just like Blanka, lived by his wits. He trundled a grocery cart back and forth between the liquor store and Tokyo University, and sold drinks to the students in the neighboring dormitories for less than what they would have to pay downtown. Soon, he and a couple of other informal settler friends were operating a colorum bar out of their quarters, from a makeshift counter and a couple of small tables with mismatched stools.

It was also at Tokyo University that he first saw art and film students at work. The possibilities of such varied and vibrant forms of self-expression resonated within him. He began taking photographs and dealing art on the side. Several of the artist-filmmakers he met in his Tokyo University squatter days have since become steadfast and loyal friends, such as the filmmaker and videographer Yuki Hasegawa, who helped him to edit his first films. Hasegawa has generously volunteered gratis his professional services for several weeks on “Blanka,” typically putting in 15-hour long workdays. Yuki explained why he believed so much in Hasei’s vision: “Kohki is not like most Japanese, not even among those in the creative industry. He is an original and we really respect and honor that.”

Hasegawa’s working visit to Manila last July, in the midst of three successive typhoons, was his first time in another Asian country. Hasei regretted he would be unable to take his friend on a walking tour of Tondo because of the floods. He urged Hasegawa to return to Manila after post-production work on “Blanka” was finished, and when the weather might be better. Then he wryly observed that the four other Japanese film colleagues whom he had invited to join him when he had shot earlier films in such places as the slums of Del Pan, the slimy pilings of the North Harbor and the stiflingly crowded jails of Malate, had not revisited Manila as they had assured him they would.

“They never come back,” he says with a twinge of mournful puzzlement. He does not seem to understand why his Japanese friends do not appreciate or share what would be an unconventionally acquired taste for Manila’s slums and rough living, which he has so readily soaked up. Hasei enthusiastically bids his Filipino friends goodbye with a hearty “Ing-gat!” and is very generous with his pasasalamat, although ordering Marlboro’s at the corner sari-sari store remains a trial, because of the typical Japanese difficulty with rolling r’s and lilting l’s. After an especially long day of shooting or post-production work, he invites his assistants and the technicians to unwind with cold beers, sisig and balut at any hole-in-the-wall eatery that is still open after midnight.

Hasei’s halcyon days as a squatter in the Ivy League enclaves of Tokyo University ended literally with a bang. One day he awakened to the boom and crash of a humongous hydraulic drill chipping away at the façade of the building he occupied with a motley crew of mostly European, American and Jamaican drifters. They were surrounded by 400 reservists and campus security forces with linked arms and heavy weaponry. Ever the happy hobo, Hasei found other lodgings, but the underground bar and art gallery were gone. For a time, he made quite a good living as a sidewalk vendor, selling Zippo lighters from Hanoi on the Tokyo streets. These were vintage originals left behind by fleeing American troops of the Vietnam War and much sought after by Japanese hipsters who paid a fortune for such prized American pop culture artifacts.

Perhaps it is such life experiences that have deepened Hasei’s empathy for the struggling Filipino masses. He eschews the usual status symbols and proudly tells of how in his leaner and hungrier days, he saved up for months to buy a pair of $1,000 leather boots that he had long coveted. For the next 11 years, these were the only pair of shoes he owned and he literally wore them out. One can count his total wardrobe changes on both hands. Manila being much warmer than Tokyo, he usually goes around in flip-flops or a battered pair of lace up black leather boots. He also owns nondescript sneakers whose original color is no longer discernible. Mother Teresa would have approved of his austerity of dress.

Without having read him in Psych 101, he manages to express the gist of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: “What does a man need after all? I eat and drink well; I have a comfortable place to sleep; I am doing what I want.” Hasei admits he has never felt the need to settle down and propagate his seed, although he is fond of his nephew and nieces, and the various small fry he meets on his wanderings. Batang hamog are delighted when he high fives them instead of giving them money for solvents. Wherever he stays, he sets up a tabletop shrine with the framed photographs of his mother, his only brother, his late grandparents, his German producer and his closest male friends who have supported his art for the last 20 years.

The theme of his first feature film, “Blanka,” is how anything can be purchased these days. He also wrote the script. His young heroine, all alone in the world, decides that since her mother has left her; she will beg and steal till she has saved up enough to buy another one. Despite its grim setting and the colorful misadventures that befall Blanka, there is nothing unremittingly dark or sleazy about the film. It draws more upon the innocence of such classic cinema as Chaplin’s “City Lights,” than the realities of Meirelles’ “City of God.”

“The little children of the streets, how their joy shines through—they are like the sun,” Hasei marvels at the contrast between poor Filipino children and middle-class Japanese youth who are overcome by the pressures and stresses of the drive to be successful. He is not unmindful though of poor Filipino children’s very real needs and will be helping one of the child actors in “Blanka” to get his vision surgically corrected. Hasei calls “Blanka” a fairy tale, and yes, without giving the plot away, it has a happy ending.  


 Maria Carmen Sarmiento

Maria Carmen Sarmiento

Maria Carmen Sarmiento is an award winning writer and the former Executive Director of the PAL Foundation. She can be reached at menchusarmiento@gmail.commenchusarmiento@ymail.com


More articles from Maria Carmen Sarmiento