Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Summer 2009, vol 7 no 2

An Interview With Babak Gray, the Director of Bashō and the Travelogue of Weather-Beaten Bones
Interviewed by Robert D. Wilson

RW: Give us some background about the setting and the action of film?

BG: Matsuo Bashō (1644 - 1694) was the most famous poet of the Edo period in Japan. His main literary legacy is his elevation of haiku to the realm of high poetry—a legacy analogous to Shakespeare's in relation to the sonnet.

The Travelogue of Weather-Beaten Bones is a travel diary of linked prose and haiku that recounts one of Bashō's many journeys—this one through 12 provinces along the western Pacific coastline in the footsteps of his spiritual and poetic master, Saigyo—and in the company of his long-time confidante and disciple, Naemara Chiri.

Early on in this journey Bashō describes—

The Episode with the Baby

Autumn is giving way to winter. It's a harsh and desolate landscape that our hero's travelling through. There's a fierce wind that rips the last leaves from the trees. There's snowfall on the ground. He comes across a baby abandoned on a river-bank. The child's cries compete with the sound of the wind. Bashō is deeply moved. Moved and confused. For there's little he can do. He exchanges looks with Chiri. He gets off his horse. He gives the child a couple of scraps of bread. The child quiets down momentarily. What now? Nothing. Bashō gets back on his horse. And reluctantly rides on. He stops though for a moment. He turns back to look one last time upon the baby. And he recites a haiku. About the pitiable fate of the child. About the fragile fleeting nature of all life. He then turns his horse's head again. The child begins to cry once more. Bashō rides on with Chiri. The wind continues to howl. The snow begins to fall once more. Bashō and Chiri ride off into the distance. The sobbing child is left behind....

This is the central action of the film.


RW: Whose translation of Bashō's poem did you base your film on?

BG: The translations (saving that of the central haiku, "poor little monkey," etc., which I rashly attempted myself) are those of Sam Hamill.


RW: To start with the obvious question, what inspired you and your cinematographer, Zac Nicholson, and later, Damian Daniel, to create a short movie based upon a haiku by Matsuo Bashō?

BG: Well, I read widely, and as an aspiring film-maker I get many of my inspirations from what I read. I read Bashō on a trip to Japan many years ago and developed a great appreciation for his work.

I was particularly struck with the incident with the baby which formed the inspiration for the haiku we've referred to, and which our movie is based on. I think, like a lot of readers, I found it quite shocking—but perhaps for different reasons. Not so much because he apparently has no choice but to abandon the baby. That seemed fair enough. It's the way he weaved it into his narrative ("The Skeleton...") so seamlessly. And that he chose to treat it just like any other incident—any other of life's myriad fleeting little moments and transitions.

But, of course, it then made perfect sense—in that sense of the ephemeral, his treatment of this episode captures the spirit of all haiku, but applied, for once, very directly and bluntly to the transience of human life.

It's the lightness and ease with which he treated a subject which we would imagine could only be treated by recourse to tragedy, or something altogether darker and heavier than the language of haiku. That's what I find so striking—and ultimately so brave. It produces an effect which is at once beautiful, noble and serene. At times more than that, the effect seems deliberately, teasingly ironic, or provocative at least, something like a koan.

That's the effect I wanted to reproduce in this film.


RW: Do you feel you succeeded in reproducing the essence of one of Bashō's most controversial haiku?

BG: Only partially.


RW: Why's that?

BG: Well, partly because I wasn't able to give it enough context. That's what the graphics were intended to provide. Because, as I say, it was the way Bashō embedded this episode so seamlessly into the narrative of his journey that was so astonishing, I needed to sketch the same context as best I could. From a purely practical point of view, drawings were the answer—but they also made sense from a formal point of view.

Light pen and ink sketches, in the tradition of haiga, were perfect for the gentleness of touch I wanted to convey. (After much research and experiments with various illustrators I finally struck lucky with the illustrations of the multi-talented Graham High.)

Sadly, much of this context had to fall by the way-side.


RW: How so?

BG: Firstly, when it came to the actual shoot (in Glencoe, in Scotland, by no means faithful to the original Japanese setting, but suitably dramatic and desolate for my purposes), realism began to take over—there were the baby's cries, there was the harrowed look on Yoshi's face (since the baby was genuinely distressed, so therefore, was Yoshi!). It was impossible for the camera to maintain complete distance and it was slowly being sucked into the agonies of the human drama.

I soon knew it would be difficult to counteract the dark centrifugal pull of this filmed sequence with that wished for lighter touch in the the opening and closing graphic sequences—which as originally envisaged were much more elaborate and incorporated several other episodes from the journey, both before and after the encounter with the baby.

And so it proved—in the edit, partly due to time constraints and the inevitably limited good will of people who were generously working at a heavily discounted rate—I bowed to the instincts of my editor, who thought that we had to get to the heart of the action quickly and get back out quickly, and therefore prune the great majority of the contextual illustrations.

He's a fine and very experienced BAFTA-winning editor (who as a pretty much first-time film-maker, I was very lucky to get to work with)—and his cinematic instincts, as against my own sometimes opposing literary bent, were probably the right ones.

But what we're left with is something that feels a bit truncated. And it's also baffling to many. Partly because the Zen aesthetic of haiku is quite foreign to most cinema-going audiences, partly because they find the abandonment of the baby bewildering, and partly because the set-up is now more dramatic than poetic and there is no denouement.


RW: Aside from the controversy of filming a scene easily misunderstood by occidental audiences, were there others who understood the film and what it was saying within a minimum of film time?

BG: A discerning few still seem to "get it" though (it got a warm response at the Tehran Film Festival where, of all places, it was premiered a few months back)—and that's why, Robert, it's so gratifying to hear that it seems to have at least partially worked for you and several others in the international English language haiku community.

I'm too close to it to know any more—but I still hope that it at least goes some way to translating the spirit of Bashō, taken to its extreme point in this episode with the baby, and that it comes closer to the cinematic equivalent of a haiku than an abortive drama.


RW: How did the film and this particular haiku affect you emotionally as someone coming from a non-Japanese mindset?

BG: Although there is so much that I find inscrutable and frankly alien about Japanese culture, I find Bashō very accessible. More than that, his writings have a pellucid quality and reveal a wonderfully warm and humorous personality that you feel you've got to know quite intimately. Sadly, the incident with the baby does not set his character off in its usual light—there's little room for humour in Yoshi's portrayal of Bashō, obviously. The haiku in question, with its reference to the monkey's tears, is actually highly allusive and virtually untranslatable—which is why I chose to recast it in quite different terms, so that it is now a very loose translation indeed.


RW: How close was the collaboration between you and your cinematographer? Did you both enter into the project with the same vision and understanding, or was this a conceptualization that grew while working together as a team? Oftentimes people underestimate the artistry and importance of the cinematographer in the making of a quality film.

BG: Damien came on board very late, and I'm not sure how much he knew about Bashō before the shoot or how much he needed to know. But our collaboration on set was very close indeed. We worked out all the shots together the day before the shoot.


RW: How did you decide on who would portray Bashō in your film and how did you manage to cast Yoshi?

BG: My brother Ramin (a theatre director and, therefore, in the know) had seen Yoshi Oida in Peter Brook's famous staging of The Mahabarata at the Glasgow Tramway—and having read my screenplay thought he might be right for the part. So I phoned the Bouffe du Nord, Brook's Paris-based theatre company of which Yoshi was a regular member. After much coaxing the lady who answered the phone reluctantly gave out Yoshi's private number. I called him and babbled on in broken French—I thought I better cut to the chase—"Yoshi, I'm making a film about Bashō, your national poet icon. I've got an offer you can't refuse. I'm about to jump on a train. See you tomorrow afternoon!" 48 hours later I had bamboozled my way into his beautifully furnished Paris apartment on the Boulevard Voltaire.

There is a portrait of Bashō on the cover of my well-thumbed Penguin Classic that first introduced me to his work—crinkled round the twinkling eyes; a gently ironic smile plays about his lips. I saw exactly the same face when Yoshi opened the door to me. Bashō had come back.

Who the hell was I? Here am I, a first time director with as yet, no backing—and there's Yoshi, used to working with the likes of Brook, Besson and Greenaway, an established director in his own right and the celebrated author of a 3-volume master class on the art of acting. I made sure to vary my command of French at crucial moments so as to navigate these perilous waters, leaving my credentials suitably vague behind a smoke screen of broken Franglais, but sensing Yoshi's real affinity for the project (though only later did I discover that he took a three-month period of training as a priest at a Shinto monastery), eloquently pushing home its true potential if he were to accept the eponymous star cinematic role.

A couple of hours later, and after several cups of Japanese tea, I had secured his agreement in principle at least. That was enough. I now just had to run with that and return when with the help of his name I had conjured something more out of the hat.


RW: You'd never directed a film before? How did you get this project off the ground?

BG: I stayed in Paris because the next morning I had an appointment with Sebastien Lemercier of Why Not Productions, producer of Cesar-winning The Beat That My Heart Skipped and the recent remake of Assault on Precinct 13. Sebastien knew Ramin—the first lesson I was learning in this new business was work your connections as best you can. Ramin had sent Sebastien my screenplay. Sebastien genuinely liked it and wanted to meet. Over coffee and croissants we talked Bashō. No need for me to bullshit this time—Sebastien knew I was completely new to this game. But we got on—and I left with a definite commitment that he would help me in any way he could. He was as good as his word—later he gave the film his official backing and approached the CNC (French counterpart of our own Film Council) for funding on our behalf. (We didn't get it—the project was not French enough I suspect—but merci, Sebastien!, you tried.)

The screenplay was going the rounds in UK circles too. Matthieu de Braconnier gave me an hour of his time, was very complimentary, and suggested I submit to the Cinema Extreme scheme that he administers. (I did—but given my non-existent track record, unsurprisingly was turned down. Ah well, better luck next time, at least now I have something for my film reel!)

Things now had momentum. I was now attracting cast and crew. Once more working my connections I had Zac Nicholson (who had worked with the likes of Shane Meadows and Chris Morris) lined up as my DOP. And I had Summer of Love editor David Charap also pencilled in. I just needed a producer. David suggested I approach Mike Chamberlain and Dave Allison at Stampede. So I did—and Dave Allison bravely took the project on (an act of faith and courage for which I remain eternally grateful).


RW: Producing a film of this quality with a good cast and production team had to be costly.

BG: Yoshi had put me in touch with Kimie Nakano, a London-based Japanese costume designer who came on board. And besides the wonderful enthusiasm and professionalism she brought to the making of the film, Kimie helped me in my search for funding. She pointed me towards the Daiwa and Sasakawa Anglo-Japanese cultural foundations. And sure enough they kindly decided to sponsor our enterprise. And we got some additional funds from some private investors (of which special mention goes to Mrs. Takavi of Soho Japan, a great fan of Bashō who was particularly supportive of our film).


RW: Why did you decide on a location outside of Japan other than for financial reasons, and how did you make your choice?

BG: I had wanted somewhere wild and bleak—the Scottish Highlands I thought, admittedly not quintessentially Japanese but true to the spirit of the tale to be told. Simona Hughes, a good friend of mine, recommended Glencoe, particularly Glen Etiv and Rannoch Moor. So I went and toured the area with Kimie and her husband, Matt Deely (our prop master but much more than that, he was a huge and indefatigable bonus to the crew). Rannoch Moor was wild and weird—encrusted with patches of snow it looked like a crater of the moon, and was encircled by a panorama of mountains (sadly also by an invisible but distantly audible motorway that would have presented problems to Carlos Soto, our meticulous sound man and unflagging van driver). It was bisected by a stretch of water too. Glen Etiv was a more traditionally picturesque and rugged Highland mountain vale, again with a stream running through it. However, filming options would be limited by the approach road and telegraph poles that ran along one side. I had found two great locations—but there were residual concerns regarding both—particularly regarding the "river," which in both cases had a fairly sluggish flow.

This first trip was in late spring. But filming would not be till the winter, partly because of Yoshi's commitments, partly because I wanted a wintry kind of shoot. I was still in two minds when I returned in late autumn with Dave to finalise the location details with our Scottish-based and highly committed location manager Yvonne Cook. It was a day when the rain was bucketing down so severely there were floods (that washed away our chosen return road to Glasgow airport, forcing us to double back and find another route). Once more I surveyed the scene at Rannoch Moor—the snow on the ground had gone, and despite the downpour from above, the stream that had been there in the spring had now all but shrivelled up. Soaked to the skin and disheartened we drove on to Glen Etiv. And there, to my delight, the water was in full tremendous spate. We found a bend in the (now bona fide) river (complete with a currently wind-swept tree) that had appeared relatively staid on my previous visit—but that now offered a dramatic setting to match almost everything I would have wished for. There was a bridge beside it—but the site still afforded sufficient camera angles and gave us easy access to both sides of the river. I had found my definitive location.

Dave rightly questioned the wisdom of my enthusiasm for this storm-swept setting. Sure it looked great. But if the conditions were like this, would we be able to film? Right now we could barely get out of the car without drowning. In the intervening weeks before the shoot I prayed for the rain to keep up so that I would have my torrential river—and then to ease up when the crucial days arrived.


RW: Was it an easy film once the wheels were rolling or did you, like most directors, encounter problems?

BG: Hah, yes, there was still many a slip twixt cup and lip. The biggest blow came when Zac had to pull out. His wife was expecting. He was increasingly anxious and understandably so. A couple of weeks before the shoot he came to his senses and realised that it was madness to be shooting a film in an inaccessible (to a decent cell phone signal more or less completely) wilderness 500 miles from home when he was about to become a first-time father.

I panicked for a moment. But Zac's not one to let anyone down—and he guaranteed that he would find me an adequate replacement, and sure enough he did. Welcome Damian Daniel to our story. I met him in a McDonalds on Oxford Street—and his infectious enthusiasm during that first encounter was a tonic that immediately lifted my spirits. He came recommended by Zac, he had great attitude, and he had a great show reel too—no problems, game back on.

We were still scrabbling around for a baby. Then Dave chanced upon her. In a supermarket with her mother. He sensed that this was the baby I was looking for. And he was right. Yi Jun Tan—she was Malaysian Chinese—but she was heart-breakingly beautiful. That face would move a heart of stone to tears. Accosting Mrs. Tan, Dave brokered a meeting then and there. I met Yi Jun in a café in Holloway a few days later along with her entire lovely family, her parents, Vincent and Evelyn, and her three elder siblings. Another search was over. The baby had been found.

The first day of the shoot was now approaching. I had lost all contact with Yoshi. Yoshi's old-school—no cell phone, no email. And now he had not been reachable on his landline for several weeks. I tried to stay calm, to preserve my sang froid. At last, 48 hours before the shoot Yoshi returns my umpteenth call. He's on his way. Phew!

The night before the shoot and everyone had safely arrived—even though a combination of bad weather and loading delays meant that Dave and Carlos did not arrive with the equipment van until 3 in the morning. After which I went to bed and prayed for the rain (sure enough, it was raining) to hold up the next morning.

And lo and behold, the next day's conditions were indeed perfect. The sky was suitably overcast and grey but the rain held off—while the river's flow stayed turbulent.


RW: How hard was it to direct, prepare the set, and film the scene with the baby who was abandoned in Bashō's haiku?

BG: I knew the scenes with the baby would be most gruelling, especially for Evelyn and Vincent—so I had decided to schedule all Yi Jun's close up scenes first. We would use a doll that I'd requested Kimie to provide for the longer shots. Luckily I had also had the good sense to request that Matt provide a harness for Yi Jun to anchor her to the ground—even so her parents were understandably very anxious as she wriggled around only a yard or two away from the turbulent river's edge. It was a tough experience for everyone concerned. But after an hour or two of this ordeal we had got most of the shots we wanted. Evelyn and Vincent were magnificent—I'm so grateful that they did not pull the plug on us and that they saw these scenes through. I just hope we've provided a film that's good enough to repay their emotional investment—and that also bears testament to their daughter's undoubted potential as a star of the silver screen.

What followed was some messing around with horses—(and they say don't work with animals or children, well here was I on my first directorial outing throwing such cautions to the wind). Yoshi and Dai both showed great character and patience, braving the elements in their relatively skimpy (but beautiful and wonderfully detailed—thanks Kimie!) costumes while giving me all the takes that I required.


RW: How did the rest of the filming go besides the scenes with the deserted infant?

BG: We encountered a new mishap in the middle of the afternoon. We had been under the impression that both sides of the river where we were shooting belonged to the Ian Fleming estate—from which we had acquired the requisite filming rights. A park ranger then drove up and informed us that, actually, the near side of the river (where most of our shooting was taking place) was National Trust land. I don't recall who fobbed him off or how—but he offered us an interim respite while threatening to return and close us down if we did not get the permissions that we needed. I think he took pity on us—because he didn't return, either later that day or the next day—much to our relief.

Throughout all this, Damian and Bronagh Keegan, our AD, maintained discipline and focus, kept us on schedule and prevented me from veering off on tangents I could not afford. By the end of the first day we were on course and half-way home.

The next day we kept up the pace. But the light was increasingly erratic. We had got most of what we wanted but we were running out of time. That's when, through no fault of her own, our clapper loader (Anna Benbow) got locked in the equipment van (we only realised when we noticed she'd gone missing for the past 15 minutes and we needed a new roll). More high drama. Matt finally improvised some ingenious solution and let Anna—who, true to character, remained admirably cool and unflustered—back out.

15 minutes to go before light stopped play—3 shots still to get. Damien was brilliant and led the charge—and some how, by hook or by crook, he managed to get me everything I wanted.

That was that. Many thanks all round to all those who had been involved and kept faith in what was undeniably an arduous, under-funded and therefore under-resourced shoot—and then the long drive home. (If memory serves we couldn't start the van engine and needed a jump start from the last passing motorist as the sun went down—that's pretty emblematic).


RW: : A film is not over after the initial filming. Next comes post production. Tell us about the process.

BG: Back in London and post-production starts. First thing was to find an illustrator. After much research of contemporary haiga (haiku illustration) artists I found the perfect man for the task in hand, Graham High, the editor of the British Haiku Society magazine. (He's also a sculptor who's provided the animatronics for Aliens but I guess that's by the by.)

What now? Well, to be honest, both I and Dave were a little bit out of our depth—neither of us had any experience of working with 35mm. It's at that point that Stephen Fingleton came to the rescue. He saw a draft cut that Dave's editor friend, Oli da Costa (who gave considerable help throughout the post-production process and has resolved every technical conundrum thrown at him), had kindly made and posted on the web in order to advertise the film and generate completion funds. And Stephen was sufficiently impressed by this to contact me and compliment me accordingly. I knew Stephen since I had met him prior to production and he had impressed me with his knowledge of cinema and technical expertise. So with Dave's agreement we invited him to come on board and steer us through what lay ahead.

Stephen then essentially took the film by the scruff of the neck. Without him it's fair to say the film would never have got completed. He got us in a position where I was finally able to go into the edit and spend a very educational week or two with David Charup. That was a real privilege as a first-time film maker to be working with an editor of his experience and calibre.


Babak Gray Babak Gray studied Philosophy and Psychology at Edinburgh University. He subsequently obtained a post-graduate scholarship—again at Edinburgh—to study Artificial Intelligence.

On completion of his post-graduate degree Babak embarked on a career in software engineering working for companies providing high-tech and innovative designs and solutions to a variety of clients in both the corporate and public sectors.

Babak's interest in cinema goes back a long way—but he came to film-making after many years writing poetry and short fiction, when he discovered that the screenplay was his most natural literary form.

More specifically it was his interest in haiku and the poet Bashō, cultivated a few years ago while on a trip to Japan, that led to his conception of a film adaptation of Bashō's Travelogue of Weather Beaten Bones—culminating in Bashō, his first short film, jointly funded by the Daiwa and Sasakawa Anglo-Japanese cultural foundations.

Babak is scheduled to commence shooting on another short film later this year.

As an additional point of interest Babak was awarded a gift of the national flag by the Australian Aboriginal Parliament for services rendered in his student days as a political activist—when he spearheaded a successful campaign to return Australian aboriginal ancestral remains that were held within various UK institutions, most notably his own university.

Enjoy the Basho video. Direct access placed here especially for our readers.