Thursday, December 10, 2009

More story details for Kitano's "Outrage"

Alerted by Jason Gray's tweet to the existence of an official site for Kitano Takeshi's upcoming "Outrage", I found and translated the following synopsis:
The story begins with Sekiuchi (Kitamura Soichiro), boss of the Sannokai, a huge organised crime syndicate controlling the entire Kanto region, issuing a stern warning to his lieutenant Kato (Miura Tomokazu) and right-hand man Ikemoto (Kunimura Jun), head of the Ikemoto-gumi. Kato orders Ikemoto to bring the unassociated Murase-gumi gang in line, and he immediately passes the task on to his subordinate Otomo (Beat Takeshi), who runs his own crew. The tricky jobs that no-one wants to do always end up in Otomo's lap...
The site also describes the film as "a violent action blockbuster set in the world of the yakuza, where men put their lives on the line and engage in betrayal and subterfuge in a vicious struggle for power."

Monday, December 07, 2009

Comedy, horror, Iguchi, Noboru

Hard work, resilience and an admirable crowd-pleasing ethos has enabled Iguchi Noboru to hack off a small but loyal chunk of popularity among Japanese filmgoers. namely those seeking titillation, mutilation and cheesy gags in equal measure. If you're looking for a modern day equivalent of old-school artisan B-movie meisters such as Ishii Teruo or Suzuki Noribumi, who has quite appropriately professed his admiration for Iguchi's handiwork, you'd have a hard time finding a more jovial and well-regarded heir to their legacy. Now in his 40s, Iguchi boasts a still-expanding repetoire of oddball hardcore porn to complement his more 'mainstream' work as an actor for frequent collaborators Takenaka Naoto and Matsuo Suzuki's Otona Keikaku, as well as writing and directing credits on several late night TV series mostly starring untested young female idols, and then there are his films. In recent years, Iguchi has been brought to the attention of overseas audiences largely through the U.S.-funded "The Machine Girl" and his subsequent "Robo Geisha", two eclectically idiosyncratic projects that gleefully exploit fetishized western images of Japan (or rather the assumptions of the filmmakers themselves) to riotously absurd extremes. More stereotype aikido beckons with a new project in the works from Nikkatsu's foreign geek-baiting Sushi Typhoon label. But regardless of what you think about his oeuvre, you have to hand it to Iguchi for managing to consistently churn out well-received niche entertainment with a distinctive voice in the face of minuscule budgets, suicidal schedules and working conditions that are considerably less than luxurious. When so many more well-known directors are struggling to get their own projects off the ground and languishing in obscurity, that's quite an accomplishment.

Somewhere in between all this, the man still finds time to blog on occasion and generally comes across in his writing as a sensitive, playful personality with a genuine dedication to making sure paying customers get their money's worth. In contrast to the lovable sicko image projected by his loincloth-flapping glute-puncturing festival appearances, Iguchi is also a reliable source of frank and well-considered opinions on certain films, filmmakers and the state of the industry, as shown in this entry lamenting the contrasting attitudes to horror in Japan and the U.S.:
So lately my work has revolved around scriptwriting and meetings, but the more films I make, the more I come to realize that there's no end to it. Trying to find what's entertaining, what people want to see. I agonize over the gap between my own values and sensibilities, and those of audiences.

Meanwhile, I saw "The Final Destination" and "Drag Me To Hell".

Both were made in the U.S., where over-the-top horror films are big business, and these were actually big hits. The needs of viewers there are totally different to those in Japan.

Anyway, what impressed me about both films was their devotion to entertaining audiences. "The Final Destination" is 3D, and it puts you on the edge of your seat just by making you wonder when and how its characters are going to be killed off. In "Drag Me To Hell", an elderly woman torments the heroine to a sadistic degree, and gratuitously throws up on her time after time for our enjoyment. Their unrelenting stance and dedication to spectacle is terrific, and they function unashamedly as horror films, nothing more and nothing less. This spirit is truly wonderful!

That's because I see Japan as a country where being 'mere cinematic entertainment' is for some reason often looked upon with shame and disdain. Horror films tend to be regarded as vulgar and an infantile genre, so in Japanese horror there is an odd tendency to add complex interpersonal drama and auteurish, stylish cinematography, despite the fact they're horror films.

Furthermore, often when you see interviews with actors who appear in Japanese horror films, they'll say "This isn't just a horror film", and that saddens me. Every time I feel like retorting, "What's wrong with just being a horror film?"

This seems to be misunderstood, but making a proper horror film isn't about stringing together scenes of violent cruelty. You need a sense of dramatic balance and technique to deliver suspense while closely adhering to viewers' psychology.

"The Final Destination" director [David R.] Ellis, and Sam Raimi, making his first horror film in several years, are both first-rate directors who possess that kind of technique of the highest standard. On top of that, they are actually skilled at portraying characters, and their unobtrusive depictions of the modest struggles and hang-ups of the black alcoholic security guard in "The Final Destination" and the heroine in "Drag Me To Hell" add depth to their films. By underpinning the story with such elements, fear is felt more keenly. Especially with Raimi's film, I felt that his experience in creating blockbusters like "Spiderman" and serious works was used to powerful effect.

To an extent, the way in which they fulfill their missions as genre films gives you an idea of their directors' good nature. They opened my eyes to the fact that these are the kind of films that are made by adults, in the truest sense. These are directors who are worthy of respect. Please see these films if you get the chance.

*Photo graciously supplied by Iguchi wrangler outcastmarc

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Sono Sion: cinematic contrarian

A selection of the most interesting quotes from an interview back in February by online mag Hogaholic with "Love Exposure" director Sono Sion:

Hogaholic: Suggesting meaning in the spaces between dialogue and ruminating on it is often described as cinematic. In Japan especially, it's widely viewed as a good thing.

Sono Sion: That's right. In fact, there are lots of films like in Japan. But I'm a contrarian, so I want to go in the opposite direction. It makes me feel "anti-Japanese film" (laughs). If Japanese films were all chatty, I think I'd make ones that focused on the silence between words. However, right now there's a glut of that kind of film, so I do things the other way. I don't know if this is a great example, but I think the people who make those films take a firm stance like "There might be 36 colors, but black's all I need". But that kind of austerity isn't for me. I've got the kind of personality where if I have 36 colors, I want to use them all. I want to try all kinds of techniques. These days, there's a school of thought that regards narration as crude, but if it's the best option I wouldn't hesitate to use it. After all, narration is a fine traditional cinematic technique.

HH: There are a considerable amount of homage-like scenes in this film. One of the most obvious would be [male protagonist] Yu dressing up in drag as Sasori, which of course is a reference to the "Female Convict Scorpion" series.

SS: You could even say there are too many. Directors like Tarantino deliberately and explicitly insert them as if to say "this is dedicated to that scene from that movie", but with me it's more of an automatic process. There's absolutely no intention to say something like "This one goes out to Sasori and Toei". They just appear naturally. This time around, personally speaking, I wanted to make a film with a virginal quality, and there was an element of wanting to make something with the kind of aroused excitement I felt when I was a virgin. Basically I wanted to make a film that provided the kind of excitement I felt when I was still in junior high and high school. That's why homages to the films I watched back then ended up in it. I myself didn't notice until afterwards. Yesterday, I watched [Brian] De Palma's "Phantom of the Paradise", and there's a kind of homage to it in "Love Exposure". But while I was shooting it, that didn't occur to me at all. Yesterday while I was watching "Phantom" on DVD, I realised for the first time that "Hey, I made an homage to this" (laughs).

HH: I get the impression that you pay a lot of attention to the feelings of your actors. Is that because you're a director with acting experience?

SS: I haven't done much acting lately, but that might be true. Also, I like John Cassavettes, and he's the origin of my directing style. Cassavettes was a director who had experience as an actor, and that influenced his method of direction. His influence is probably quite significant.

SS: This doesn't apply only to Japan, but producers these days, once they have a hit with a particular actress, they only think about how far they can stretch out that success by continuing to use that same actress, saying "she stars in your next film" without putting any thought into it. They work within what you might call their comfort zone, and won't take a chance on uncovering some new unpolished gem. The result is that you get four or five films a year starring the same actress. That's abnormal. If Japanese films continue down this road, they'll definitely suffocate. A producer's role should be something like a day trader, but they only treat casting like a safety mechanism that aims to recycle past successes. That's why you end up seeing the same faces all the time. Doing things that way, new talent will just stay buried. This isn't a good situation. I believe in my own eyes, and I want to keep on searching for actors with future potential.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Jasper Sharp's new website

Film writer and curator Jasper Sharp of Midnight Eye and "Behind the Pink Curtain" fame now has his own homepage: He's also on Twitter too: Adjust your bookmarks and RSS readers accordingly.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Ishii Sogo pays tribute to Yamada Tatsuo

Yamada Tatsuo (centre), a prolific supporting actor who appeared in around 100 films including "The Sinking of Japan", "Ashura" and the upcoming "The Sun That Doesn't Set", and also attended high school in Toyama with future filmmaker Takita Yojiro who would later direct him in "When the Last Sword is Drawn" and "Departures", died of stomach cancer on July 26th at the age of 53.

To many people though, including myself, he will always be remembered for his 1980 screen debut as Jin, the indestructible protagonist of Ishii Sogo's Mad Max-inspired violent opus "Crazy Thunder Road". 13 years later, he reunited with Ishii to play an older, wearied but still rebellious version of the same character in "Street Noise", a short instalment in the director's 1993 omnibus "Tokyo Blood". This marked Ishii's return to filmmaking after a protracted absence, and Yamada's presence also represented a fond farewell of sorts to the style of frenzied, kinetic cinema he'd become associated with before exploring a new internalised, metaphysical approach.

Ishii remained silent on his close friend's death until August 3rd, when he posted this moving tribute on his website.

Encountering actors and crew members is a truly wondrous experience that feels like a gift from above.

For me, Tatsu was my eternal star.

He was generally known as a distinguished supporting actor, but Yamada Tatsuo was always the star in my films.

Ultimately we only worked on two films together, but we shared a rivalry between actor and a director in which neither of us would budge an inch. There was no such thing as an easy job when we worked together, and there was always an unspoken rule between us that there would be absolutely no possibility of working together if we weren't able to invest over 100% of our energies in a project.

Tatsu was also one of the few people who had a profound understanding of the essence of the kind of films I wanted to make, and it would have been unthinkable for me to accept an offer of a job that he didn't approve of.

When "Crazy Thunder Road" was screened at the Kanazawa Film Festival in September of 2007, he kindly came as a guest, and although he was a man of few words and very good at hiding his true feelings behind humour, for the first time ever he spoke with me earnestly and fondly about the time we made the film. Afterwards, he joined me for a drink even though he was obviously in a bad way, and our robust discussion about the kind of films we'd make together next eventually turned out to be the last time we'd ever talk.

I'll never forget the happy, melancholy, and relaxed look on Tatsu's face back then.
Just as everyone would imagine, Tatsu was a real man's man, while at the same time he was also a very sensitive soul.

Of the new scripts I've completed, a few were written with Tatsu in mind.

I am once again angered by my own pathetic inability to get a new film off the ground in time.

I'm sorry.

I am filled with regret. And sadness.
Yesterday's films no longer exist.
Tomorrow's films are yet to be known.
All we have now are the films of today.

In memory of Yamada Tatsuo.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

For new "Sasori" Mizuno Miki, Simon Yam's boots know no mercy

Japanese production company Artport and Hong Kong director Joe Ma's reboot of the classic "Female Prisoner Scorpion" series, Sasori, finally opens in Japan on August 8th. By all accounts, it's a rather odd reimagining rather than a remake that de-emphasises the original's central theme of an oppressed and defiled woman wreaking merciless revenge against male hegemony, in favour of more conventional yet confusingly-plotted wire-based action. Mizuno Miki gamely takes over the role synonymous with Kaji Meiko, and in this Eiga Hiho interview with vocalist for influential rock band Kinniku Shojotai and writer Otsuki Kenji, she's surprisingly upfront about the film's more idiosyncratic elements, as well as the contrasting action styles of her Hong Kong co-stars.

OK: This remake feels like a spliced-together montage of scenes from different TV series and films. It'll suddenly cut off in mid-scene, and jump to some other totally unrelated part.

MM: During the shoot, they'd only give me the parts of the script we were shooting that day, so I had no idea what it was like in its entirety. What's more, it kept on changing. It was as if the complete version existed only in the director's mind.

OK: Sasori is dumped in this place that's like a disposal site for dead bodies, and corpse collector Simon Yam picks her up thinking she's dead even though she's actually still alive, then he trains her... story developments like those made absolutely no sense when I was watching the film (laughs).

MM: They didn't to me either, so when I was on set I went and asked the director about the bits I didn't understand. But his answer was mostly “Logic's got nothing to do with it!” (laughs)

OK: “Don't think, feel!”, just like Bruce Lee! So what exactly was that place where the corpse collector finds Sasori?

MM: Um... I suppose the prison had a place where the police would dump all the corpses.

OK: Oh, how convenient! That's a pretty half-arsed premise! He's supposed to be there collecting bodies, then he's all “bloody hell, she's alive”, so he force-feeds you something like a roasted sweet potato and nurses you back to health. Feeding a roasted sweet potato to someone who's on the verge of dying – what kind of resuscitation technique is that?!

MM: It was just a sweet potato. Still, he did give me something to drink before he fed it to me.

OK: Oh right, potatoes contain no moisture so it'd get stuck in your throat... what the hell's that got to do with it?! (laughs)

MM: Simon's character was probably under the impression that someone who dies and is resurrected can become a powerful assassin, so he'd collect lots of corpses, constantly wondering if one would come back to life. While making a giant wooden martial arts dummy. Or something like that...

OK: Well... then doesn't the corpse collector's story sound a lot more interesting?! (laughs) Not “Departures” so much as “Dispatches”. Sometimes he dispatches bodies, sometimes he doesn't...

MM: Ha ha ha!

OK: I'd love to see a spin-off built around the corpse collector.


OK: Also, there's that bit where Ishibashi Ryo is drinking in a bar and suddenly whacks another customer with a stick, and just as I'm thinking “What the hell was that?”, he's gone back to drinking again with a cool look on his face. That was a surprisingly surreal scene!

MM: I thought the same thing when I watched the film, but its power alone is amazing, and the story and the action is off the scale. The same goes for the way each action scene is choreographed.

OK: In one fight scene, a female opponent suddenly hangs in the air, spins around and around then delivers a flying kick. Without any run-up! That was amazing. A complete violation of the laws of gravity!

MM: That's right! I also get lifted up by my enemies, get spun around several times, suddenly jump incredibly high, and do a flying kick. We shot action scenes like that with the idea that their impact was more important than their reality. As I was acting I gradually became so numb to that idea that I came to think, “That's just the way it is” (laughs).

OK: There's a lot of freedom inside the prison too, with the inmates getting into fights and no-one trying to break them up!

MM: And on top of that the costumes were pretty out-there too. Miniskirts as part of the inmates' uniform... (laughs).

OK: Including bizarre things like that, how should I say, it felt like being transfixed by some strange dream (laughs). The catfight scene with Natsume Nana was awesome too!

MM: It was cold when we filmed that scene, and the floor was slippery, plus we were covered in mud, so it was incredibly tough.

OK: Nana lets out this fearsome beast-like growl (laughs). Like “ROOOAR!!!” I wondered, is she really like that? It was quite a surprise.

MM: She said the ADR sessions were tough too. I guess action movies really are more about entertainment than logic!


OK: What was it like acting alongside Bruce Leung?

MM: It was a-mazing! His movement was incredibly quick even though he's in his sixties. Plus he was extremely intimidating and scary when he attacked, but if I broke stance even slightly he'd stop the action immediately. He pays proper attention to his opponent's movements, and if he senses danger he responds right away, so I felt completely safe acting with him.

OK: How was Simon Yam [pictured left]?

MM: He'd just come at you out of nowhere, it was so frightening! (laughs) He doesn't pull his punches at all, so when he hits you, he really hits you! When he kicks you, he really kicks you! That's what he was like. Plus he always wore these heavy boots that looked like they had steel plates in them. When he'd kick me, it'd be with such force that I'd think “If I take three more of these, my bones are breaking for sure...”

OK: For an actor, that's an... interesting approach (laughs).

MM: Sure enough, I took a hard kick in the ribs one time that rendered me motionless for a while. It was too much so I pleaded to the director with tears in my eyes, “Please make him stop doing that, it's scaring me” (laughs).

OK: There are a few people around who are that full-on...

MM: If they want to do full-contact hitting for real, they should probably do it in a ring!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Jissoji Akio: "giant of carnal knowledge"

"Jissoji's collection was wide and varied. I also compiled around 20 "Ultraman" files in my junior high days, and I understand that Kurosawa Akira had memorised the complete works of Shakespeare. I guess film is a kind of 'collection of memories'."

Filmmaker Kawasaki Minoru reminisces about his late friend Jissoji Akio's passion for scrapbooks, sex and monsters in this candid interview for Cyzo by Nagano Tatsuji. As my translation is unauthorised, you'll have to click through to the original article to see photos of Kawasaki's keepsakes.

Director Jissoji Akio (1937-2006) was an unusually-blessed television and film creator whose intense episodes for the "Ultraman" and "Ultra Seven" series left traumatic impressions on the children who watched them. While revered as the "Ultra master" by tokusatsu fans, he also possessed an intimate knowledge of opera and classical music, and is also well-known as a calligrapher and tram aficionado. If Ultraman is a 'giant of light', Jissoji was an intellectual who could be fittingly described as a 'giant of knowledge'. The film "Kibogaoka Fufu Senso", currently screening in theatres [at the time of writing in July 2009], is an erotic comedy based on a novella by Jissoji that demonstrates his literary talent. It is also a work that shows his extraordinary thirst for knowledge of the erotic. For this article, we spoke to one of Jissoji's long-time friends, director Kawasaki Minoru. As well as revealing for the first time some of the rare mementos he received from the director, he also talked about a lesser-known side to this 'giant of knowledge'.

NT: Jissoji is known amongst some of his fans as a collector of flyers for adult entertainment. I understand that many of his possessions were donated to the Kawasaki City Museum...

KM: Yes, this is a file of adult entertainment flyers that he gave to me. There are about 20 of these files just for such flyers. Also, there are another eight of clippings from erotic manga. Some of Taniguchi Jiro's erotic work is in there too, and he's a popular manga author now (laughs). The things that stimulated Jissoji's sensory genius were painstakingly collected in these files. I think most of the books that were tucked away in his storeroom have been donated to Kawasaki City, but apparently some items that weren't so easy to donate were destroyed. What I have here are rare items that narrowly avoided disposal. This is probably the first time in the world they've ever been shown (laughs). Jissoji loved the sex trade, and there are a huge number of diaries he kept with detailed records of things like the kind of service he got from the girls and the layout of the rooms, and I think that all of his diaries were donated. Jissoji wasn't just a 'giant of knowledge', he was also a 'giant of carnal knowledge' (laughs).

NT: Right, let me take a look at this file. Wow, it's quite a sight to see so many girls from '80s gravure packed in here!

KM: In a way, these are lost images from the Showa era. The heyday of adult entertainment flyers was around '85 I think. Ones that have only illustrations and text would probably be older. Even the phone boxes that these flyers used to be stuck on have already disappeared from our streets. You could probably call these extremely rare cultural artifacts. These flyers are filed according to region... there are ones here from Shinjuku, Shibuya, Sugamo, Otsuka, and even Niigata and Nagasaki. Each has its own file number, which gives you a sense of how methodical Jissoji was. He didn't collect these by himself either: he got his crew and cast members, and even his wife (actress Hara Sachiko) to help. Well, she only brought back a couple though (laughs).

NT: The ones that used photos of celebrities have beautifully handwritten notes next to them. "Possibly the one and only Yakushimaru Hiroko". They're the private indulgence of an in-demand director. I hear that Jissoji wasn't a fan of large breasts?

KM: Big breasts did nothing for him, nor did young girls. He was crazy about older women. When popular AV actress Sakuragi Rui visited his office looking for work, he told her "No, no, big tits are no good" and sent her home. He'd say, "Fruit and meat are tastiest when they're just about to go off" (laughs). Jissoji didn't like appearing on television, and he turned down offers because he wouldn't have been able to go to knocking shops so easily if his face became known. There's a bookstore in Jinbocho that specialises in erotica called Haga Shoten, right? One time when Jissoji tried to buy a really hardcore video there, the shop assistant said to him "Oh, you're a famous director aren't you? You're Ninagawa Yukio!", and apparently he just took the receipt without denying it. The bookstore staff must have been stuck with the misconception he was Ninagawa (laughs).

NT: Do you see eroticism even in his tokusatsu hero work like "Ultraman" and "Ultra Seven"?

KM: Of course. Come on, the monster in the first episode of "Ultraman" that he directed was the "Squirting Pearl Eater" (Shiofuki Kaiju Gamakujira). Tokusatsu is a treasure trove of fetishism. Jissoji was a train buff too because he loved the world of miniatures. He had an inclination for the feel and texture of things that evoked the Showa era, like model trains, and Leica cameras. People who have a thing for Ultraman are all fetishists of some kind. Well, Jissoji was someone who had stronger feelings for monsters than Ultraman. I heard that at the time of filming he wanted to give Seabozu and Gamakujira a more grotesque appearance, but thanks to designer Narita Toru and modeller Takayama Ryosaku they became lovable monsters. In later years, he admitted regretfully that "They were right". He couldn't have conceived that the shows would still be screened 40 years later.

NT: In the notoriously banned 12th episode of "Ultra Seven", "From Planet With Love" (Wakusei yori Ai o Komete), a Spehl alien sucks the blood of a young woman, which is an erotic premise when you think about it today.

KM: That episode has scriptwriter Sasaki Mamoru's (1936-2006) unmistakable stamp on it too. Jissoji and Sasaki shared outsider status within Tsuburaya Productions. Their unique collaboration was able to shine exactly because the main team of Iijima Toshihiro and Tsuburaya Hajime were active at the time. It's the same today too. Major, mainstream properties have disappeared, and there's no longer any place for outsider talent to shine either.

NT: Looking at these flyer files and considering the essence of creativity, it feels as though it's found in an artist's particular erotic tastes. For example, Obayashi Nobuhiko is obsessed with the eroticism exuded by teenage girls.

KM: Ah, Obayashi Nobuhiko. Lolita-loving Obayashi's works didn't sit well with a lover of mature women like Jissoji. Jissoji started out in television and Obayashi in commercials, so they both came from different fields to become film directors. That's because they had such distinctive characters. Mishima Yukio told Dazai Osamu he hated him, but the situation was probably similar to Jissoji and Obayashi. They'd never compliment each other, but they were conscious of what the other was doing.

NT: Does this file contain the letters that Jissoji sent to you?

KM: They're so exquisitely handwritten that I can't read them (laughs). On this New Year's card, there's a photo of his beloved stuffed raccoon toy he called "my eldest son Cheena". On the set of "Chikyu Boei Shojo Iko-chan 2" (1988), he brought Cheena along. It scared lead actress Masuda Mia. He was a dangerous old man who cared for a stuffed toy like it was his own child (laughs). This easy-to-read printed postcard was one he sent to me when he was in hospital for a stomach cancer operation. I had asked him to supervise production on "The World Sinks Except Japan" (2006), and he watched the film from his hospital bed. He wrote here "I can't wait to get back on set". His tenacity enabled him to return to work and finish his last work, "Silver Mask" (2006). This is the notice for his memorial service.

NT: Ah, very Eros and Thanatos. You asked Jissoji to act as supervisor on your "Chikyu Boei Shojo Iko-chan 2" (1988), "Calamari Wrestler" (2004), "The World Sinks Except Japan" and "Rug Cop" (both 2006), so did he influence those works?

KM: I say 'supervisor,' but he really just watched the films and did the title calligraphy for me (laughs). I didn't learn filmmaking under him, so we were more like friends with an age gap. He had no influence on my works [he says decisively]. Well, there's an homage scene to the Eye Slugger from "Ultra Seven" in "Rug Cop". But, I have to say that his comedy sense is amazing in episode 34 of "Ultraman", "A Gift from the Sky" (Sora kara no Okurimono), where Hayata tries to transform into Ultraman using a curry spoon. There's also the scene in episode 8 of "Ultra Seven", "The Targeted Town" (Nerawareta Machi), where the Metron alien and Dan have a conversation over a traditional short-legged dinner table, that really packs a wallop. There were plans to export the Ultra series overseas, so a scene as quintessentially Japanese as that raised the ire of Tsuburaya Productions. But Jissoji was the kind of person who broke taboo after taboo. And those works of his live on today as masterpieces. I doubt we'll see many filmmakers from now on who'll be as dazzling and capable of breaking taboos so nonchalantly.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Sabu on "Crab Cannery Ship", part two

The conclusion of Nagano Tatsuji's interview for Cyzo (read part one here):

NT: Shinjo, the leader of the workers on the cannery boat, is played by Matsuda Ryuhei, so did you see him as carrying on the legacy of his father Matsuda Yusaku?

S: That's exactly right. When I met him, he was the spitting image of Matsuda Yusaku. I was moved (laughs). Matsuda Yusaku had an aura of madness to him, but in terms of portraying that in a role I'd say Matsuda Ryuhei has probably surpassed him already. He has his own unique presence, and at the same time he's also a capable actor.

NT: Did you ever cross paths with Matsuda Yusaku in your acting days? 

S: Yeah, just once. I heard he'd turned up near the apartment building I was living in at the time, and when I ran over to have a look, he was in the middle of filming his last TV series (1989's "Karei naru Tsuiseki") in which he co-starred with Florence Griffith-Joyner. He had someone massaging his lower back throughout the whole shoot [Matsuda was fighting bladder cancer at the time, unbeknownst to most of the cast and crew].

NT: Running was a theme in that series too. You have an intriguing connection there. While your works depict men who run to survive, they also have many characters who die pathetic deaths without managing to change the status quo. They have a distinct concept of life and death built into them, so is this because you had foreign filmgoers in mind?

S: I've always been interested in things like concepts of life and death. When I go to film festivals overseas, there are lots of foreigners who don't believe in ghosts and it's fascinating. I've been to the Berlin Film Festival several times, and Germans don't believe in an afterlife. It's a country where so much war and tragic things have happened, but perhaps because it's an existentialist country, apparently they don't see ghosts. For "Monday" I got Dairakudan to appear in white makeup as beings from the underworld, and I get asked "What on earth were those Butoh dancers...?" (laughs) Germans don't believe in ghosts, but they often have a thing for Japanese culture. Reactions are different from country to country, so it's interesting. As for me, I'm immensely interested in things like spectral photography (laughs).

NT: I'd love to see you make a running horror movie (laughs).

S: Yeah, that might be interesting to do (laughs).

NT: At the press conference announcing the completion of "Crab Cannery Ship", your words to the journalists, "Please become cogs in the gears of society," have really stuck with me...

S: "Cogs in the gears of society" might have a bad ring to it, but it depends on how you look at it. It's the same with filmmaking: you have a script, and large gears start to move when your crew and cast come together, and when the shoot's over, the gears of editing, promotion, theatrical release keep on turning. If any one of those gears isn't aligned properly, a film won't do very well. When everyone joins forces, it succeeds for the first time. For this film, I've travelled here and there and been interviewed, and the journalists say "I'm a fan of yours. I enjoyed your new film". But when I see the printed article, "Rookies: Graduation" is featured prominently, and my film gets a tiny bit of space beneath it (laughs bitterly). First of all, I'd like these reporters to work to change their own product. Then if they were able to give greater exposure to the films they like and want to support, their jobs would be a lot more fun wouldn't they. Er... "Rookies" was just something that popped into my head as an example. I haven't seen it so I can't really say anything about it (laughs).

NT: More and more big names are appearing in your movies, so what are your thoughts on the boundary between major works and minor ones?

S: As far as casting goes, there's no such thing as major or minor. Now everybody works in television. In the past, some actors would say "There's no way I'd ever work in television," but that's not the case anymore. It's not so much an issue of major or minor, it's whether you're good at acting or bad at it, so that's where I want to draw the line.

NT: Since your debut, you've been running all the way, and I'd say the sights and places you see while running have changed quite a lot. Do you intend to keep on running?

S: Making films in Japan, you inevitably get offered a lot of projects where you're adapting pre-existing material, and that has its own merit. They're chances to depict worlds that I'm unfamiliar with. I'd never have come up with the idea of a drama set in a cannery on my own. Plus, you can't call yourself a filmmaker if you're not making films. I have some original projects that I hope to make overseas. I'm currently working on one that I hope to shoot overseas with a foreign cast and crew sometime next year. My fans always seem to want me to make films like my old ones, but it's easy to get stuck in a rut doing the same old thing, so I want to fulfil those fans' expectations while trying to find a way to free myself from that situation. To break out of that rut, I've got to think, think for myself... you see (laughs).

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Sabu on "Crab Cannery Ship", part one

Update: JG comments on his first-hand impressions of Sabu and the importance of sound in his work here.

From an interview by Nagano Tatsuji in Cyzo:

NT: As a symbol of our inequal society, the novel "Crab Cannery Ship" (Kanikosen) [recently] became a huge bestseller and its title was chosen as one of the top 10 buzzwords of 2008, but as it was written 80 years ago it's quite frankly a difficult read. Had you read the book before?

S: No, I hadn't. I don't read novels, proletarian literature, or bestsellers. For this job, I read it for the first time. It was a learning experience (laughs).

NT: You're a screenwriter as well as a director, and yet you haven't read the likes of Shakespeare. If Kurosawa Akira was still alive, he'd probably keel over on hearing that.

S: Shakespeare's something I haven't read yet. It's about time I did (laughs). Since my student days I never read novels. I just listened to music all the time. After I came to Tokyo and became an actor, I gradually started reading more. When I did, they described worlds I never knew about and I thought "Hey, this is interesting."

NT: So you were brought up in an environment that was richer in music than literature. It's true that your works all have a unique rhythm and tempo, and they give the impression of music emanating from the visuals.

S: Yeah, music's really important to me. When I write a script, it's always while listening to music. And when I use it in a film I like music playing on a car radio, or the sound of a train, or the noise of a city rather than background music. When I read "Crab Cannery Ship", I heard the sound of machinery. I thought "I can use this for scenes where the protagonists become agitated." Even in places where there's no sound, you can still hear the "thump, thump" of a human heartbeat. Percussive sounds are very useful for depicting tense situations.

NT: So when you're imagining a scene, music naturally makes itself heard to you. It's as if you're blessed with something akin to perfect pitch.

S: (laughs) It's definitely easier to create a story when I start hearing its sounds. When I'm writing a script too, if I try to create dialogue with a walking rhythm, the results are more interesting. I can't come up with good ideas when I'm stuck behind a desk.

NT: "Crab Cannery Ship" has been reborn as an avant-garde entertainment film in your hands, but how did you view the significance of telling a story about class warfare in this age?

S: The book has been [bought] by over 1.6 million people, probably because of the [recent] recession and a whole lot of other reasons, but I think that everyone read it because they wanted to find something beneficial for themselves in it. I'm sure they probably wanted to discover some hope or light within the book. I wanted to pick up on that in a big way in the film. Rather than class warfare, it's about how to break free of your current situation, and what you have to become to do that, and that you have to decide that for yourself. I wanted to properly push the importance of making your own decisions to the forefront.

NT: On the Russian ship that saves Shinjo the fisherman (Matsuda Ryuhei), the Chinese interpreter (Tezuka Toru) barks at him "You've got to think and think, then act", and it's a line with a message that's very you.

S: Yeah, um, that line said by the dodgy Chinese guy is the most important one in the entire film. Doing nothing out of fear is the worst thing to do. You can only think for yourself, and act of your own volition. It's the same for me when I write a script. Before I start writing, I lie in bed worrying "What am I going to do? What am I going to do?", but by thinking and thinking and then beginning to write, the way becomes clear. You have to keep doing that. If I'd thought "I don't know squat about class warfare" and shut my brain off when I was offered the "Crab Cannery Ship" adaptation, that would have been the end of it. But when I started to write, I came up with the gag about the boat lurching and thwarting everyone as they were trying to hang themselves, after which they say "Ah, that was a close one."

NT: Your first film "Dangan Runner" was also about three men who think about various things while they're running.

S: That's right, all the things I make my films about, I came up with when I was an actor. In that regard, this time I was adapting a book, so the goal was already in sight. All that was left to figure out was whether I could make all the men in the film head for that same goal in one go.

NT: I was wondering how you were going to have the men running inside the boat.

S: (laughs) In terms of psychological distance, they're made to run quite a bit. That's because they go from thinking "Let's all die, and find happiness in the next life" to contemplating how to live positively as individuals.

Thanks for switching

Welcome to Still tweaking a few things, but good to have you here.

Don Brown 3rafgudw7m

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Kitano to return to yakuza films?

A quick bit of Beat gossip from Cyzo:

Kitano 'Beat' Takeshi's 15th feature film looks set to go before the cameras in August.

"It hasn't been officially announced yet, but it's unmistakably going to be about modern yakuza society. Also, in line with the wishes of investors, the cast will not feature actors from Kitano's regular stable, but has Shiina Kippei as well as Kitano himself in the leading roles, with Miura Tomokazu and Kase Ryo in support." (according to a film industry insider)

We also understand that it will be shot on location in Kobe, the home ground of the Yamaguchi-gumi.

"It seems Kitano was a bit spooked when he first learned he'd be filming in Kobe, but then he heard from local film people that the gang had shifted their base to Nagoya, and also found out that only recently lawyers had held anti-mob demos around the gang's offices, so he was relieved to hear that their influence in Kobe was diminishing." (according to a TV producer close to Kitano)

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Do you have the guts to handle Nishimura Yoshihiro?

Horror, especially the gore-based variety, is currently deemed a risky commercial prospect in a domestic theatrical market where the real money is in catering to women and families. The spread of multiplexes at the expense of smaller independent cinemas has strangled viewing choices to a degree where R-rated material generally has little chance of being screened outside of a decreasing number of theatres that cater almost exclusively to such tastes.

Now it seems shiny-domed splattermeister Nishimura Yoshihiro is having trouble finding a domestic distributor for his "Vampire Girl vs Frankenstein Girl." The same thing happened with "The Machine Girl" and "Tokyo Gore Police", which were eventually released in a few small cinemas around the country, and mostly late shows at that. Apparently frustrated at the situation, he's decided to go on the offensive by issuing this challenge to film promoters and distributors:

We try to make cool stuff on a limited budget even if it kills us.

It's a challenge. Against everything.

That's why we want you to take up the challenge of distributing and promoting it.

Do you have to wait for someone to tell you to do it?

I know there are certain (childish) things holding you back, so attack them with the unique Japanese tradition of "nemawashi". If you can't do that, quit your damn company, nothing's gonna change.

How can you call yourself a promoter if you can't change the direction of film?

We put our lives on the line to make something cool, so we want you to do the same.

If you can't do that, you may as well die.

Or stick to saving up your Eco Points.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

"Goemon": the future of Japanese film?

You can always rely on producer Ichise Taka to come up with some unvarnished comment every so often about the state of the Japanese film industry, but this time he's come out swinging against the detractors of his collaboration with Kiriya Kazuaki, "Goemon":

Thanks to everyone who came to the see the film.

"Goemon" broke the 1 million attendance barrier [on May 25th]. I've received lots of emails praising it from friends and acquaintances who are usually tough to please, but I've been amazed at how obtuse the response has been from film critics and the media.

Adventurous works that divide opinion are exactly what's needed in Japanese film right now, so why don't they understand how much this challenge means for the future of cinematic entertainment in Japan? Criticism should be left up to those with the requisite insight and intellect, and should be a means of nurturing talent and potential. At a time when outlets for proper film criticism have virtually died out, every man and his dog is excreting infantile scribblings of their impressions.

I was dumbfounded by one article in a certain weekly magazine written for the purpose of bashing Kiriya. It conveniently collected the kind of comments from self-appointed film critics (nothing like actual film criticism) that are perfect for such a biased piece of writing, as well as picking up on snide remarks from film websites, denigrating the film. It's careless and truly irresponsible. I'm appalled to no end.

Does Ichise have a point about the quality of Japanese film criticism? Many foreign film scholars share the same pessimistic view, as seen in the continuing debate on the Kinejapan mailing list. There aren't many film sites and magazines out there worth subscribing to, especially when commercial imperatives and the threat of getting blacklisted by film companies and talent agencies require writers to tippy-toe around stars and directors in insipid reviews and interviews that read like advertising copy. At the other extreme, less-inhibited venues for film discussion such as blogs and bulletin boards, user-generated review sites like Yahoo! Eiga, and Eiga Hiho magazine's devastating "Hang 'Em High" column can be great sources of cathartically sadistic entertainment, but do they serve any other purpose?

As I mentioned in my 'review', Kiriya has become a target of derision from both professional and amateur movie pundits, and not just because of his films. He's the ex-husband of J-pop star Utada Hikaru; the son of a wealthy family that owns a chain of pachinko parlours (an industry often associated with Zainichi Koreans, which hardly endears him to bigoted netizens); and has a reputation as being 'passionate', which for some translates as airheaded and arrogant.

Personally I think there are enough problems with Kiriya's style of filmmaking to justify targeted criticism, especially concerning the gap between his ambitions and his accomplishments, not to mention the failure of veteran producers like Ichise to guide an inexperienced feature filmmaker away from superfluous indulgences and to set more realistic goals. But hey, what the hell do I know? I'm just some nobody who paid 1800 yen to sit through your grand experiment.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Why Asano Tadanobu doesn't work in television

From a recent interview with Nagata Tetsuya for Nikkei Trendy Net:

Nagata: You stopped acting on television about ten years ago. Why?

Asano: At first I worked in television quite a bit, but I fought with my manager a lot and at one point I considered giving up acting. And this is just the way I feel, but with television it's as though you're bound by a system when you're making it, and that cycle of shooting then going on air, then shooting again and going on air not long after just wasn't for me. Visually speaking as well, it's a bit mechanical.

On the other hand, with films you get a strong impression that they're made with passion. The shoots are really tough, working through the night then getting up early the next morning. Even so, you have people who are old enough to know better sometimes fighting with each other while working hard towards the same goal, and within myself I realised that's the way it should be. Of the films I was involved in when I was young, there were quite a few where I had no idea whether they'd be released or not, but despite that it was clear to me that everyone kept working their arses off to make them, and so I came to the conclusion that this was the only place I wanted to work.  

When I actually began working exclusively in film, some of the crew members would say to me affectionately "From now on you've got to stick to films!" They really take care of you, and when I hear things like that, I think by now there's probably no point in me working in television [laughs].

Nagata: So are you happier to be called a film actor, rather than just an actor?

Asano: Yes, I'm grateful for that. I got where I am today thanks to the many veteran actors I worked with in my twenties who'd say "Asano, make a go of being a film actor". When someone's kind enough to call me a film actor, it shows that I can get by just sticking to films.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Thoughts on "Goemon"

In the space of only two movies, Kiriya Kazuaki (real name Iwashita Kazuhiro) has become arguably one of the most divisive filmmakers in Japan today. Both he and his work are either lauded as visionary or derided as incompetent; the former usually originating mostly from his producers and staff, and the latter from film critics, both amateur and professional. The vitriol levelled at him is often so vehement as to (almost) generate sympathy for him.

It's a bit of a mystery as to why Kiriya, who started out in photography and music video and isn't the scion of a filmmaking dynasty, has been given such free creative and financial reign with his first two features when other more respected, experienced - and some might say talented - directors are unable to get their own projects off the ground. Perhaps his backers believe his brand of visually elaborate CG-reliant action is one way of taking on Hollywood at its own game, at a fraction of the price.

As with Tsukamoto Shinya's "Nightmare Detective" films, story-wise "Goemon" is more accessible than his (single) previous work but it still bears all the hallmarks of a Kiriya project, so much so that it's virtually the same film as "Casshern". A conflicted outsider hero whose recklessness has irreversible repercussions for his loved ones. Superhuman leaps into the sky before plunging back down to earth to deliver shattering blows to ineffectual and identical enemies. Virtual cameras that travel impossible speeds and distances. Impressively ornate sets and costumes. An obsessive attachment to colour manipulation. Fuzzy live-action elements unconvincingly composited against digital backgrounds that sometimes provide much-needed depth, and at other times are laughably unrealistic. A doomed love story that ends in tragedy. A lavish cast of well-known names with some employed luxuriously in brief bit parts. A muddled anti-war/violence message. An apparent lack of regard for his own country's filmmaking traditions as well as the integrity of his source material.

If you've read my “Casshern” review for Midnight Eye you might have got the impression I'd been drooling at the chance to dump all over Kiriya and his work again, but I honestly went into the theatre really wanting to like “Goemon”. Despite a lukewarm reception domestically, “Casshern” still went on to generate an impressive fanbase for itself and its director overseas and it would be safe to assume that Kiriya's latest will be greeted enthusiastically by those same people, especially considering that it deviates very little from his previous effort. However, the flipside is that it shows little in the way of progression or maturity as a filmmaker, both technically and as a storyteller. He still can't shoot even the most serene of scenes without adding unnecessary cuts from different angles, and still relies on choppy editing to provide movement instead of allowing his actors do so in takes of adequate duration. Maybe its done to compensate for his cast's lack of athleticism and action chops; Eguchi Yosuke might possess a more impressive physique than stars from past eras such as Wakayama Tomisaburo, but he can't wield a sword with anywhere near the same degree of finely-honed elegance and authority. That's not Kiriya's fault. But I'm convinced he'd enjoy far more success (and a hell of a lot less ridicule) if he just left the writing and direction to someone better qualified and concentrated solely on art direction, a discipline in which he's shown far more aptitude and enthusiasm to date.

By the way, despite what the Yomiuri says, Kiriya doesn't 'act under the name Akechi Mitsuhide', he appears in a cameo as the treacherous general who turned on his lord Oda Nobunaga, and is clearly listed in the credits as Kiriya Kazuaki. Proof that their reporter wasn't able to sit through the whole film?

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Thoughts on "Rain Fall"

The best thing I can say about Max Mannix's "Rain Fall" is that its acting and direction are a slight notch above the average Japanese commercial thriller. There are no minor celebs in incongruous cameo roles, no shouting-while-crying histrionics and no embarrassingly implausible Japanese FBI agents. Shiina Kippei's English is passable (albeit hardly fluent enough to convincingly portray a Japanese-American), and Gary Oldman and Emoto Akira add their slightly phoned-in gravitas to the proceedings. The only truly inadequate performance is provided by the gorgeous but floundering Hasegawa Kyoko, who displays an inability to evolve past the kind of gaspy staccato line readings and superficial emoting favoured by local television dramas (and to be fair, these days that's about as rare as liver spots on a prime minister).

What's sadly lacking is a script that sustains suspense and gives its characters something to do apart from flapping their gums. Especially its globetrotting assassin hero, who's only required to perform a couple of blink-and-they're-over action scenes without even breaking into a sweat and the rest is all sleepy-eyed yap yap yap. In fact that's all most of the characters do apart from Oldman, who just shouts a lot instead.

Inoffensively competent but fatally anticlimactic, its central flaw is exemplified by the macguffin of a Memory StickTM (it's a Sony Pictures production after all, hence the proudly displayed Vaio logo on Oldman's laptop) containing evidence that could bring down the government. One character inadvertently encapsulates the redundancy of its contents in one line: "How are we supposed to blackmail people if the information they're meant to fear is public knowledge?" Especially when that info could be used to force Japan into becoming... what it pretty much is already. It's little ado about not much really.

That being said, for a film not entirely Japanese but mostly cast and shot in Japan and with obvious designs on the international market, it's no cringeworthy embarrassment. And at least the John Legend song that plays over the end credits doesn't stand out like a turd in a punchbowl as with Oasis in "K-20" or Dani bloody California in "Death Note".

Friday, April 24, 2009

Natives still beating barbarians into submission

Proof that the so-called 'hoga boom" is still going strong? For the first three months of this year, Japanese films handled by the present 'big four' - Toho, Shochiku, Toei and Kadokawa Pictures - took a 52% share of overall box office income with foreign films mopping up the rest. Although these figures don't quite represent the full picture as other distributors of local films such as Warner and Asmik Ace haven't announced their earnings yet, it still illustrates that domestic product currently has the upper hand and looks set to emulate last year's 59.5%-40.5% revenue split.

Industry types and journos often bemoan the "yoga-banare" syndrome (disinterest in foreign - read Hollywood - films) currently afflicting filmgoers and this week's box office ranking doesn't exactly disprove them either, with the only truly foreign film being the Oscar-winning "Slumdog Millionaire" which managed to open only in fifth (second-placed "Red Cliff Part 2" is heavily backed by entertainment conglomerate Avex, perpetrators of numerous crimes against music).