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.

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