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.


  1. Very interesting interview. Does anyone know if 'Murder on D Street' has ever had an English-subbed outing on DVD? (Or maybe just a fan-subbed version?)

  2. Thanks Martin.


    Not to my knowledge, and considering the current state of the DVD market, I doubt there's much chance of one.