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A Tale of Crows

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Five hours into the first day of filming, and already Kageyama Tobio has begun living up to his notorious reputation. Both the good bits and the bad.

To be fair, Sawamura Daichi can't say he's surprised. While he can safely say that he was utterly naive and ignorant at the inception of A Tale of Crows, his first feature-length project, when pre-production began last year, life has been a nonstop crash course in the realities of independent filmmaking since then. Managing the personalities of his unexpectedly star-studded cast is a hurdle he's seen coming since auditions took place four months ago.

Sadly foreseeing a problem isn't quite the same as being able to forestall it or fix it. Which is why, when a projectile of sauce-slathered okonomiyaki, hurtled with great energy by Hinata Shouyou and then expertly dodged by Kageyama, flies across the set to land on the balding pate of a lighting technician, Daichi’s reaction is to gape first and stifle laughter second.

The rest of the cast and crew appear to share Daichi’s response — either shocked into silence or hilarity — with the notable exception of Kageyama and Hinata themselves, who continue their argument without regard for the collateral damage they have inflicted.

“Say that again!” snaps Hinata Shouyou, first-year acting student at the Karasuno Film School, currently set to make his cinematic debut in the unnamed role of Classmate #1, and already, after three takes of a single scene, well on his way to sworn enmity with Kageyama Tobio. His fists are balled at his side and there is a furious spark in his expression. It is almost possible to see small puffs of angry smoke emanating from his ears.

Kageyama Tobio, tall and thin and recently described in AERA magazine as 'Japan's most famous has-been at the tender age of 20', stares down at Hinata with an unflinching and dismissive air. "I said, I don't consider your performance necessary to the success of this film."

For a moment, Hinata raises his clenched fists. Daichi takes a step forward, wondering if the argument is about to escalate from food fight to fisticuffs. But Hinata does not move, only speaks: "I'm going to make you eat those words. You'll see."

Instead of replying, Kageyama simply reflects Hinata's glare. Tension emanates throughout the set. The chemistry is palpable. Pity that the scene unfolding in front of the cameras has nothing to do with the storyboards or screenplay as written, even with the loosest sense of artistic interpretation applied.

It is Sugawara Koushi who breaks the stalemate, nodding to the cameraperson to stop filming. (Belatedly Daichi realises that he's forgotten to yell 'Cut!'. Just as well for their barely-existent budget that they're shooting on digital and not celluloid.)

“Hinata and Kageyama, we can’t have the two of you disrupting the shoot,” Sugawara tells them. They both have the decency to look abashed.

Daichi reminds himself that he is this film’s director and his job is to direct this film. “Let’s take it from the top again,” he says, giving Kageyama and Hinata a look that hopefully conveys his current feelings, which is that if they do not begin behaving like acting professionals he will have piranhas tear apart their still-living bodies and then dump the corpse remains at the bottom of the Tokyo Bay.

(Sadly, Daichi lacks the means to carry out such a threat, which is why he doesn’t verbalise it. But it’s the thought that counts.)

Even without words, the message gets through to Kageyama and Hinata. For the rest of the session they restrict themselves to hostile eye contact and occasional hurled insults. By evening, when shooting has finished for the day, Daichi is relieved and almost surprised to discover that filming is proceeding on schedule.

One day down, six weeks to go. So far, so good.

 


 

Kuroo Tetsurou arrives at the studio at 7pm, while they’re still packing up for the day.

“Sorry I couldn’t be there for the first day of filming,” he apologises, even as he moves to assist with the clean-up with gracious ease. The set remains a flurry of activity: the carpet is being vacuumed, the tripods and boom poles put away. Some of the more energetic Karasuno alumni helping with this project are even readying the equipment and props for tomorrow.

A film crew as small as theirs requires all hands on deck, including the director’s. Daichi is struggling to dismantle one of the lighting stands, a two-tiered contraption of aluminium, and can only nod in reply to Kuroo’s greeting.

“Would you like some help with that?” Kuroo asks. He places one hand on the stand, to stabilise it, and uses the other to twist a metallic pin with long clever fingers. Unlocked, the entire tripod now folds easily.

“Thank you,” says Daichi, tipping the stand into a horizontal position and then putting it away into its protective nylon bag.

“No problems. So how did today go?”

In response Daichi shrugs.

“Could be better, huh.” Kuroo leans down to pick up a flyaway page that has escaped someone’s copy of the script. “Tell me about it over dinner.”

It takes another twenty minutes to put everything away and lock up the place. By this time Daichi is definitely aware of his growing hunger, so it’s a good thing that the ramen shop Kuroo leads him to is only a couple of blocks away.

“Not quite the best place in town,” Kuroo says, as they enter through the narrow doorway, “but I never get tired of their shoyu broth, and it’s not too crowded on Monday evenings. Why, do you find it strange that I picked somewhere like this?”

“Sort of.” Daichi’s not totally surprised, but that’s because he hadn’t really known what to expect either. Even after five months of working together Daichi hasn’t quite got the measure of Kuroo Tetsurou. Sly and clever and helpful, yes, but those attributes were obvious at first impression.

A Tale of Crows still feels like something that happened to Daichi, an event of serendipity and sheer odd luck. Directing a feature-length film is something he’s dreamed of for the last five years. Now that it’s actually happening, though, it feels like this chance has come too soon. Like he hasn’t earned it yet, hasn’t paid his dues. Does Daichi really have the skill and experience to make a project like this succeed?

They order their ramen and sit down at a tiny circular table. The shop premises are narrow, the metal stools small and crowded together. It requires careful arrangement of their limbs to prevent their knees from knocking against each other.

“I talked to the staff at Nekomata Studios and I have to work there Mondays through Wednesdays until the end of next month. I’ll be on-set the rest of the time, though.”

“That’s more than I expected,” Daichi says. “We’ll manage. Suga and Ennoshita are very organised, and they seem to have most things under control. If anything comes up I’ll let you know.”

Kuroo flashes a crooked grin. “Good to hear you’re managing. First day of filming can be chaotic and even disastrous. Not that, uh, I’d know anything about that. Of course.”

Kuroo Tetsurou is a man of many talents. Currently he is executive producer on A Tale of Crows, but his resume in the entertainment industry stretches back half a decade. Back when Daichi was a high schooler in Torono dreaming of working in cinema, Kuroo was already winning student competitions with short films he’d scripted and directed.

For actual money, Kuroo also works as a screenwriter for a weeknight dramedy based on the fashion industry, Trash Couture. The TV series is credited with having launched the career of Kuroo’s childhood friend, founder of indie label Ksquared2 and style icon Kozume Kenma.

Kuroo looks (and is) entirely young to have gathered this list of accomplishments. With his haphazard, imperfectly gelled hair and youthful street clothes, he could easily pass for a university or even high school student. When he speaks though, Kuroo projects an air of world-weary sophistication that seems to emphasize the gap between himself and Daichi.

“Were there any problems with the cast?” Kuroo asks, as their ramen arrives. “We thought Kageyama might be a problem, have we seen that already?” Straight to the point as ever. Daichi suppresses a wince, but Kuroo’s sharp eyes pick up even the minor shift in his expression that comes through. “He has, hasn’t he?”

“He fought with one of the supporting actors.” Daichi reaches out for a pair of chopsticks and extricates them from the paper sleeve. “To be fair it wasn’t unprovoked.”

“Interesting. Who?”

“Hinata Shouyou. One of my underclassmen. He gets … very enthusiastic.”

“The short noisy one. Um, the younger short noisy one,” Kuroo clarifies, distinguishing Hinata from Nishinoya.

“He flubbed some lines during the student cafeteria scene. Kageyama got shitty at him and they started yelling at each other. Then they started throwing food.”

“They started a food fight. On set.”

“They did. It’s kind of funny now. It wasn’t at the time.” Daichi takes a sip of shoyu broth. It is excellent and fragrant.

Kuroo shakes his head. “I’ve heard plenty of rumours about Kageyama Tobio, but behaving like a six-year-old wasn’t one of them.”

“Oh, it was Hinata’s fault too, make no mistake.”

“Do you think we made the wrong choice in casting Kageyama?”

“We didn’t,” says Daichi, absolutely certain. “He’s brilliant. Understands the script better than anyone else. Knows all his lines, perfect delivery. I’ve never seen anyone as good.”

“I see.” Kuroo picks up a slice of hard-boiled egg with his chopsticks and pops it into his mouth. “Well, it’s too late to reverse the decision now. Guess we’ll have to make the most of the situation.”

Kuroo says we but Daichi doesn’t intend on making this Kuroo’s problem. Daichi is the one who is directing this film. It is his project, his responsibility. His opportunity.

It is what they dreamed of, Suga and Asahi and Daichi, and he intends to see this through together. Whatever it takes.

 


 

Day 2 of filming starts smoothly. Asahi is terrified as usual, visibly shuddering with performance anxiety as he sits in the makeup chair, refusing to utter a single word until Nishinoya runs up and starts yelling at him. In the other makeup chair sits Hinata, looking even more anxious.

Twenty years old is entirely too young for an actor to begin a lifelong dependence on Valium. Daichi nods at Suga, who at once goes to Hinata’s side, patient as ever, and starts encouraging the boy to take deep breaths.

On the opposite side of the set, the lead actor and actress of the film are going over their lines together, cool as cucumbers. Dressed and made-up and ready to go.

Shimizu Kiyoko never fails to look immaculate no matter what, but her clothes for this scene were well chosen. Hair worn loose, with grey pearl-drop earrings and a Breton sweater worn over boot-cut jeans. Daichi will have to work hard to make sure the focus of the camera stays on Kageyama. Tanaka will no doubt be tempted to take endless close-ups of Shimizu’s eyes.

Next to her, the taller Kageyama looks comparatively subdued and understated. On film, Kageyama Tobio’s screen presence is astonishing — audiences all over Japan can attest to that — but it’s an effect essentially invisible when meeting him in person.

Still though, Kageyama’s sheer skill and experience stand head and shoulders above the rest of the cast. Aside from chucking a plate of curry rice at Hinata’s nose yesterday, he literally hasn’t made a mistake yet.

Now if only they can get through today without Kageyama yelling at a single crew member or fellow actor.

The first scene doesn’t involve Hinata, and goes surprisingly well. Total number of takes needed: two. For a moment Daichi pauses to appreciate what a good team he has: actors, camera crew, lighting, sound. Half of them graduated from Karasuno last month, and the other half are still film students with almost zero professional experience, but most of them are proving up to the task.

Daichi still can’t quite get over how lucky he’s been. He doesn’t want to squander this chance.

The second scene of the day is more complicated: a goukon with all of the main cast and a few bit parts, the scene where the two male leads — Kageyama and Asahi’s characters — meet for the first time. As expected from a script co-written by Takeda-sensei, the dialogue is precise and funny, the timing crucial.

Even after pep talks by Suga and Nishinoya, Hinata Shouyou still looks positively ill as the cameras start rolling. It’s a good thing his character is meant to be nervous about meeting girls, even if Hinata’s ashen face is almost too pale for verisimilitude.

Coincidentally, Asahi’s character is also meant to look terrified of Kageyama in this scene, which means that it’s all working out. As long as nobody throws up, all the appropriate actors will look terribly, horribly anxious.

They almost survive the first take. Almost.

“CUUUUUT!” The shout resounds through the studio, and all the crew members stare. Not at Daichi, but at Kageyama, who has just yelled at Hinata to stop filming.

“It was Shibuya you’re supposed to be visiting, not Harajuku! Shibuya! And that’s the third time you’ve messed up in ten minutes!”

Kageyama has stood up midscene and is using all of his height to glare down at Hinata. Hinata reacts quickly though, leaping up to stand on the bench where he was seated previously, pointing back at Kageyama.

“Hey, you’re not supposed to yell cut! Only the director is supposed to yell cut!”

The argument rapidly grows noisier. Daichi decides to call out an official, “Cut!” before taking further action. It’s not like Kageyama or Hinata are listening, but Daichi should at least maintain some semblance of authority for the sake of the rest of the film crew.

The other cast members move away from the table where they were seated to make room for Kageyama and Hinata’s quarrel. The female actresses, Yachi Hitoka and the ever-efficient Shimizu, even collect the glasses and trays of snacks as they depart, moving all potential projectiles and thrown weapons out of the way. At least today won’t end with a food fight.

It does, however — after a good sixty seconds of noisy escalation — end with Hinata jumping onto the table in angry enthusiasm, tipping forward and landing on Kageyama, and the two actors somehow rolling off the bench and onto the floor in a tangle of limbs.

Hinata knocks his head on the edge of the table as he goes down and Kageyama’s shirt catches on something and rips, with an audible tear of fabric.

Daichi’s so making him pay for the replacement for that outfit.

Incredibly, even sustaining bodily injury and sartorial destruction don’t stop Hinata and Kageyama’s fight. Kageyama if anything is more enthusiastic and vicious with his verbal attacks than ever.

“You’re completely useless, you little moron,” says Kageyama, scowling up at Hinata. They’re still stuck on the floor, Hinata sprawling, limbs uncoordinated, on top of Kageyama’s torso.

“I was trying my best! And why are you such a dick about it, anyway!”

“You’re the one who screwed up your lines. Again and again.

Daichi puts the clipboard he is holding down on the director’s chair and steps towards the set. Before he moves though, there’s a tap on his shoulder. It’s Sugawara, who gives a wry smile and then hands Daichi a plastic bucket filled with water.

Hmm, not a bad idea.

Kageyama and Hinata have started some sort of amateur and incompetent wrestling competition on the floor when Daichi walks up, tips his bucket upside down, and then drenches the two of them with a slosh of water.

The silence that ensues is deeply satisfying.

“Ahem.” Daichi hasn’t raised his voice, but it sounds loud anyway. “Are the two of you actually taking your roles in this film seriously?”

Surprisingly, that gets through to them; Daichi finds himself staring into two pairs of wide and earnest eyes, as both of them chorus, “We are.”

“Well you’re not showing much evidence of it,” he says. “I’m afraid I can’t tolerate this sort of crap on set.”

He gives them a moment to absorb his words, but they don’t seem to understand the implications, still looking up at him with water-soaked and confused faces.

Daichi makes it clear for them: “Effectively, both of you are banned from filming until you can convince me that you can work together in a professional manner. Now get cleaned up and go home.”

It takes a few moments for the message to penetrate their skulls, and when it does they chorus again in unified alarm: “What? No!”

Ennoshita and Tanaka have already stood up in anticipation; with a signal from Daichi, they come forward. They haul the two problem children to their feet and walk them off-set. Hinata’s already yelling out words of remorse: “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I won’t do it again! Let me back on! Please!”

Kageyama, on the other hand, is silent and stricken as he walks with Ennoshita towards the change rooms. Of course it’s not the first time in his career that child star Kageyama Tobio has been ordered off a set.

Maybe it won’t be the last.

 


 

Daichi is feeling suitably stressed right now. It is nearly midnight and both he and Suga have just reached the apartment that they share. While Suga goes to brush his teeth, Daichi removes his shoes, takes off his bag, then flops onto the couch and thinks about how horrible the career of a filmmaker is. Being stressed out on the job is a given, but this is not the kind of stressed out a director should be feeling on the second day of filming, and definitely not the kind of stressed out a director should be feeling over the petty squabbles of two of his main cast members. Somehow the memories of Kageyama and Hinata brawling earlier that afternoon keep replaying themselves in his mind, and he hadn’t had the time to really think about it until now, all alone in the silence of his living room, but suddenly he really doubts whether he’s going to be able to see the film through till the end.

See, A Tale of Crows is meant to be Daichi’s first and last film. That’s how important it’s supposed to be to him. He crystallises his hopes and dreams from film school into this one film, makes a small but sincere production out of it, and then he can work for his dad’s company for the rest of his life without any regrets.

It really wasn’t meant to be anything huge at all. In his last year of college, he’d pitched the idea to one of his screenwriting teachers from Karasuno Film School — the revered Takeda Ittetsu, who at the young age of thirty-four was already starting to establish his name as one of the country’s leading scriptwriters — intending for it to be a small feature that would be a good addition to his CV. Takeda agreed to co-write the script, saying that an independent film would be an interesting detour from the many commercial films that he had written in the last few years. Then, a few weeks after that, he bumped into Shimizu Kiyoko, a childhood friend from his old hometown, at an industry workshop. They hadn’t seen each other for years, and in that time, Shimizu had earned numerous accolades for her talents in acting, both on the big and small screen. They caught up over dinner and Shimizu expressed interest in one of the roles when he mentioned that he might have difficulty trying to find actors who were willing to come on board because he wasn't able to promise the commensurate salary.

“I’ll be kind and just tell my agent that I’ll take a 5% cut of whatever profits the film makes,” she smiled.

“Shimizu,” Daichi told her very seriously, “this film is not going to make any money.”

“Well, starring in an indie is not going to hurt my reputation, whether it makes any money or not,” she parried, drinking from her glass of sparkling water.

Shortly after, just when he was starting to worry about things like logistics and budgeting, Takeda gave him a call.

“Guess who’s just agreed to help produce the film!” he exclaimed, excitement palpable over the phone. Sometimes Daichi wondered if he was even more enthusiastic about the film than Daichi himself was. “I got in touch with Kuroo Tetsurou — does executive producing for TV these days, really talented guy, very clever. You’re going to love meeting him.”

Afterwards, just days after auditions began, Yachi Hitoka turned up to try out for the role of the second male lead’s girlfriend. Under the stage name YACHI, she’d already released several EPs and singles under one of EMI Japan’s subsidiaries. Magazines had touted her as the quirky, captivating indie folk answer to Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, and even Tsukishima Kei, one of Japanese radio’s most critical DJs, had named her as one of his favourite musical acts.

“S-shimizu-senpai told me to come and give this a try!” she stuttered nervously, while Daichi and Suga — the only two crew members who had the time to oversee the auditions then — gaped incredulously at her. "Please take care of me!"

And then, to top that all off, one Kageyama Tobio auditioned for the role of the male lead. Everyone in Japan knows who Kageyama Tobio is. From the ages of seven to seventeen, he acted as the adorable Nakagawa Shouta, the sole child star on the set of Welcome to the Nakagawa Family, one of NHK's longest-running sitcoms. Precocious and overwhelmingly talented, he won the hearts of housewives and elementary schoolgirls alike, earning the title of “Nation’s Little Brother” in the process — until, on a set of a historical drama he was cast in just a few months after Nakagawa ended its run, he threw the most fantastical temper tantrum and pissed the director off. Blind items in tabloids started to expose his childish behaviour on set, and a few veteran actors who’d worked with him on Nakagawa even testified (anonymously, of course) as to his burgeoning ego. Since then, he hadn’t had any opportunities to work onscreen for three years.

“Daichi, it’s Kageyama Tobio,” Suga whispered as they watched Kageyama act opposite another of the auditionees, delivery of the lines smooth and fluid after just half an hour with the script. “We can’t afford to pass him up.”

And so it ended up that Daichi was quite possibly the most inexperienced director to ever accidentally work with some of the most experienced and talented people in the entire industry.

Sure, they’ve made short films before: dozens of them. Suga’s been walking around with a camcorder since his parents gave him one for his fourteenth birthday, and he and Daichi started writing scripts together even earlier than that — as early as elementary school, if you count the skits they prepared for school performance evenings. They met Tanaka Ryuunosuke and Azumane Asahi in high school, and later on, when they all ended up at Karasuno together in Tokyo, they met Nishinoya Yuu — a small brilliant actor who already had a series of minor roles in commercials and TV shows on his resume.

It’s been their cumulative shared enthusiasm that has got Daichi this far. He has some faith in his own imagination and directorial vision and ability to lead a team, but honestly, if he were doing this on his own, he might have given up long ago. Even after being in Tokyo for four years he still gets asked by his mother, every phone conversation, when he’s planning to come home and take over the family business. At times, when he’s just paid his bills and contemplated his bank account balance, he’s wanted to tell his mother, “Soon.”

But that was before A Tale of Crows happened. Daichi's barely-existent career isn't the only one at stake now. He’s got to see this film through to the bitter end — not just for his friends, who’ve been with him and shared the same vision for all the long years that they’ve been in school together till now, but also for the underclassmen who are helping out without any expectation of remuneration, and for Takeda-sensei and Shimizu, who had so graciously offered to help and also roped in so much talent to work on the film for his sake. He can’t let them all down now, now that everything has been set into motion. He’ll have to worry about things like profits and payouts later. Right now, he has to pull himself together and take care of the problems at hand.

“You can wash up now,” Suga says, emerging from the bathroom and interrupting Daichi’s train of thought before he spaces out completely with worry. “Should we wake up earlier tomorrow to look over the filming schedule again?”

“Yeah. We’ve got to do that,” Daichi replies. He rubs his eyes and gets up from the couch. After he takes a quick shower, he’ll invest all his energy into getting as much as sleep as he can. It’s going to be one long day after another from here on out.