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A director whose short films have garnered honors in Japan and abroad, Sato Takuma is celebrating a milestone with the selection of his first theatrical feature, “Any Crybabies Around,” by San Sebastian. Sato set the film in his native Akita Prefecture, at the northern tip of Japan’s main island of Honshu. “I wrote a story about my own region, so I’m really nervous about the audience’s reaction,” he tells Variety. “I wanted to get it directly, though, not online.”

A main driver of the plot is the custom of “Namahage” as practiced on Akita’s remote Oga Peninsula. Dressed and masked as ogres from local folklore, village men go from house to house on New Year’s Eve scaring young children with the permission and approval of their parents. Designed to instill obedience and good morals in its targets, Namahage has been handed down for hundreds of years, but the film’s hero, who has just become a father, shames the community by appearing before a TV camera drunk and wearing only his mask. His punishment is social expulsion.

“I’m worried about how the foreign audience will see Namahage,” Sato says, recalling a project market he went to in Busan. “There were producers from various countries but when I showed them a video of Namahage they were all shocked – they saw it as bullying,” he adds. “But the local people don’t have that intention. The film had to show Namahage has a different meaning.”

The film’s powerful last scene involves a Namahage visit — and came to Sato first. “I saw the central question of the film as being whether the hero could spiritually become a father,” he says. “That was the starting point for me. In making the film I came to think that, as a father, (the hero) can only leave something one-sidedly behind for the children.” And that ‘something’ is the Namahage visit and the lessons it supposedly imparts.

Similar to his hero, who exiles himself to Tokyo after his disgrace, Sato left Akita for Japan’s capital in his twenties. “Even back then the population (of Akita) was steadily shrinking and, now that I’ve been in Tokyo for ten years, towns in Akita have all become lonely looking,” he says. “When I meet people doing Namahage they told me that they had to do it or it would die out. They have a sense of mission, but can they grow their numbers, even by one person, and keep it going?”