Eiga Now An Interview with Shinya Tsukamoto By Matthew Eberhart. Why “Now”? Because there’s already plenty of writing on “Then”! The English language books, essays, and articles on Ozu, Kurasawa, and the likes could fill a room, but contemporary Japanese cinema has yet to truly be examined in a critical sense...
Why “Now”? Because there’s already plenty of writing on “Then”! The English language books, essays, and articles on Ozu, Kurasawa, and the likes could fill a room, but contemporary Japanese cinema has yet to truly be examined in a critical sense. Directors like Shinya Tsukamoto, Sogo Ishii, Hisayasu Sato, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Juzo Itami, and Shunji Iwai, who are writing, directing, and starring in some very of today’s more innovative films, are rarely discussed outside of Japan, and when they are it’s usually only in a whisper.
With “Eiga Now,” I will explore Japan’s contemporary cinema—not merely the splatter/sex films that seem to be the only area of modern Japanese cinema that is covered in the US, but also the indie and mainstream films coming from the nation. In each issue of Cashiers du Cinemart, expect to see a critical look at a director, a film, an actor, or all three, plus a hand full of reviews of some of the most recent DVD/VCD releases available to the international market.
From his soft, timid features and overall conservative appearance, you might expect Shinya Tsukamoto to be a typical Japanese businessperson. You’d be dead wrong. This Tokyo-based director is far from the suit-stuffed somnambulistic salary man found roaming the streets to and from work.
Born in 1960, Tsukamoto grew up with a Super-8 camera practically attached to his hand. He studied fine arts and acting in college and, at 22, took up a career in advertising. He soon grew tired of the occupation and formed his own acting group, Kaijyu Theatre, from which his cinematic endeavors stemmed.
Involved in every aspect of the filmmaking process, from writing and directing to set design, cinematography, editing, and acting, Tsukamoto has established himself as an unyielding force in Japan’s contemporary avant-garde. His extraordinarily personal, no-holds-barred films have given him the status of a cult hero around the globe. Witnessing the six feature-length films and countless shorts tallied on his directing chalkboard, it is difficult not to recognize the genius of Shinya Tsukamoto.
Men and Machines: Science Fiction without Space Travel
Shooting film for much of his life, Tsukamoto’s first international success wasn’t released until 1989. Tetsuo: The Iron Man marks the beginning of Tsukamoto’s efforts as Japan’s acclaimed cyber-punk filmmaker. In this harsh pseudo-narrative, Tsukamoto questions the effects of technology upon the world while paying much homage to predecessors such as Seijun Suzuki and David Lynch, whose influences are impossible to deny.
Shot entirely on black and white 16mm film, the story opens with a remarkably gruesome scene that can only be understood after piecing together the characters’ intermittently revealed histories. The self-mutilating man, known as the Metal Fetishist (Shinya Tsukamoto), is then struck by another man’s car (Tomoroo Taguchi). Tsukamoto’s composer, Chu Ishikawa, begins to blend his surreal jazz with the equally spacey cinematography, and it becomes obvious that Tetsuo: The Iron Man will develop into something more than simply a “weird” story.
After hitting the Metal Fetishist, the man and his girlfriend (played by Kei Fujiwara, who also works as a cinematographer and associate director on this project) dump him in a ditch on the side of the road. And, while it somehow seems like a good idea at the time, minutes later Tsukamoto shows that it was a very large mistake.
Before going to work the next day, the man finds a resistor—one of those miniature soda cans on a circuit board—growing from his cheek. To complicate matters even further, as he waits for his morning train, a woman with a hunk of scrap metal growing on her arm (Nobu Kanaoko) attacks him.
Although the blood and guts that follow may be too much for some, it is all completely necessary in exploring Tsukamoto’s criticism of the misuses and powers of technology. The film explodes into a ruthless and aggressive dance between characters as Tsukamoto allows the metal to overtake the man’s body and mind in morbidly unwelcome scenes. The emotional and sexual relationship between the man and his girlfriend collapses into a sheer mechanical interaction, and when we finally learn why this is all happening, the world has become a nightmare of iron.
Tsukamoto’s use of rapid montage techniques, stop-animation, and scene repetition demand as much from the audience as they do from the director, and they perpetuate his themes with broken, non-rhythmic precision.
For obvious reasons, one might expect a sequel to Tetsuo: The Iron Man in Tetsuo II: Body Hammer, but Tsukamoto uses his second feature to create a strange parallel and concurrent dichotomy to the first film. Again using Tomoroo Taguchi and Nobu Kanaoko, Tsukamoto questions man’s relationship to machines.
A revisit to his obscure world that emulates reality one moment and counters it the next, Body Hammer brings the Tetsuo concept to another level. Rather than demolishing a relationship between a man and woman, as in Tetsuo: The Iron Man, here we watch the rapid deterioration of an actual family and the simultaneous metamorphosis of a man into a deadly weapon.
Cutting between fiery scenes of a vengeful man whose son has been kidnapped, and the kidnappers, who are determined to create an army of human weapons, Tsukamoto deconstructs our understanding of man and machine in a much more palpable fashion than what is seen in Tetsuo: The Iron Man. What results are questions about love, war, and how much we should incorporate machines in our personal lives.
With beautifully composed shots of Tanaguchi (Kanaoko), a businessman whose family is torn apart, against the complex architecture of Tokyo; rich colors and textures; and the use of lens filters and natural lighting in a most brilliant manner, the development of Tsukamoto’s ability as a director is easily apparent. Released in 1992, Body Hammer even found praise in major American publications such as the New York and Los Angeles Times.
The manner in which Tsukamoto’s thoughts build upon one another in the Tetsuo films allows the viewer to critically question his own thoughts on technology’s role in society. The films work wonderfully to complement each other, unlike many serial films, and their success led the director to continue exploring such concepts in his later work.
Blood, Guts, and Social Coups
If the Tetsuo films are Tsukamoto’s contribution to science fiction, then Tokyo Fist (1995) and Bullet Ballet(1998) are his gifts to ultra-violence, a genre of cinema that has either blessed or plagued the world since its birth. Although not nearly as disgustingly violent as Japan’s infamous Guinea Pig series, these two films explore the interaction of individuals and social groups in contemporary Japan through exaggerated violence.
Tokyo Fist, Tsukamoto’s fourth feature film, tells of a male-dominated society that takes its toll on a female inhabitant. In it, Tsuda (Tsukamoto), an insurance salesman, and his fiancé, Hizuru (Kahori Fujii) are pursuing their yuppie existences, composed of little excitement and even less affection. Tsuda’s old high school classmate, Kojima (Koji Tsukamoto), disrupts their banal world. Kojima, a handsome and muscular boxer, brings an air of distrust with him and turns Tsuda and Hizuru against each other.
Soon, all of the characters’ lives are flipped upside down. Hizuru leaves Tsuda and explores self-mutilation as a way to maintain a sense of control, Tsuda forces his way into the boxing ring, and Kojima desperately tries to get out. Childlike, yet incredibly violent conflict ensues between Tsuda, Hizuru, and Kojima, and the film ends in typical Tsukamoto style: a montage of stop-animation, flashing colors, and what can only be described as hellish bloodshed.
Through this twisted love story based more on revenge, honor, and tumult than actual physical or mental affection, the audience watches the characters lose touch with reality and become as mechanical as those in the Tetsuo films—without actually turning into metal.
Tsukamoto wants the viewer to confront jealously and one’s appreciation for the self and others through his depiction of self-destruction. By taking his theme to its far extreme—filling the screen with red, and rapidly eroding the characters’ original selves—Tsukamoto develops a new consciousness in his audience, which is also accomplished with his later film, Bullet Ballet.
Released three years after Tokyo Fist, Bullet Balletis Tsukamoto’s most beautiful and melancholy story. The extremely grainy photography and the stark contrast of blacks and whites with very few gray tones are what one first notices, qualities very unlike Tsukamoto’s earlier works. Even Tetsuo: The Iron Man’s photography differs from what we see here. The images and film quality are pure extensions of the story, exemplifying the blunt realities that are depicted.
Laced with bouts of both existentialism and nihilism that affect the characters and the audience equally, Bullet Ballettouches upon loneliness, alienation, and purpose in the strata of Japanese society. The audience follows an advertising artist, Goda (Tsukamoto), whose girlfriend commits suicide. Goda plans to kill all those whom he believes caused her death including Chisato (Kirina Mano), a beautiful, twiggy, wide-eyed teenage gang member, and her gang-affiliated friend, Goto (Takahiro Murase), who dreams of freeing himself from gang life once he finishes school. The narrative finds Goda struggling to find a gun, interacting with gang members and drug lords to fulfill his quest.
As the audience watches these teenagers disrespect life by wasting themselves on drugs and petty scuffles, Tsukamoto hints at their unhappiness with their status and way of existence. When they try to escape, they are sucked back into the underworld, and it seems as if they may never be able to free themselves. Concurrently, Goda falls deeper into his obsession with revenge, which ultimately thrusts him into a world clearly similar to the one that he is trying to destroy.
When Chisato breaks into Goda’s apartment and ostensibly lives the life about which she fantasizes, the audience finds it hard to look at her as just another punk. She is like a child interacting with the world for the first time, respecting and appreciating her surroundings. But she simultaneously beckons for an end to her life, as she realizes she will never be able to live as Goda does. This presents an interesting counterpoint to Goda’s girlfriend’s off-camera life and death. By the time Chisato realizes that her relationship with the gang must end, she and her friends are forced to defend themselves against another gang that is attempting to kill them.
None of the black humor of Tsukamoto’s earlier films is present in Bullet Ballet. Likewise, the story’s tragedies lead to the viewer’s emotional devastation. Although neither Tokyo Fist nor Bullet Balletreceived as much attention as the Tetsuo films, the films did extraordinarily well on the film festival circuit, giving critics a reason to reexamine the use of violence and blood as a means of exploring themes of life and love in his and other ultra-violent films.
Big Money, Big Stars
Following the release of Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Tsukamoto directed Hiroku: The Goblin (1991), in an apparent attempt to raise capital for Tetsuo II. An odd departure for the rest of Tsukamoto’s work as a director, Hiroku blatantly targets the more mainstream Japanese audiences, but its success in doing so is debatable.
The story’s manga roots are immediately obvious. The straight- forward narrative follows Yabe Takashi (Masaki Kudou), an archeologist on a dig near a high school in search of Hiruko, an ancient Japanese god. Unfortunately, Yabe finds the mythical creature and, of course, accidentally unleashes it. Hiroku strictly follows the basic principles of horror films pitting, a creepy creature against a hapless high-schooler.
With this film, it seems as if Tsukamoto was trying to spend as little money as necessary to make as much profit as possible, but again, its success is truly questionable. Of all of Tsukamoto’s work, the story of Hiruko is his least remarkable.
After Hiroku, Tsukamoto returned to working on more personal projects. However, in 1999 Tsukamoto wrote and directed Gemini for Sedic International. This film is so dramatically unlike his earlier works, while still culminating all of his stylistic techniques that even his most devout fans might initially be unable to recognize it as a Shinya Tsukamoto film.
Gemini takes place at the early part of the twentieth century, with a story just as twisted as anything Tsukamoto has done in the past. Based on a short story by infamous horror scribe Edogawa Rampo, the film tells of twin brothers, Yukio (Japanese Academy Award winner Masahiro Motoki) and Shigefumi (also Masahiro Motoki), who are intentionally separated at birth. Their wealthy parents, who are disgusted by Shigefumi’s snake-like birthmark, which wraps around his leg, leave him to die, and raise Yukio as their sole pride and joy. However, their abandoned son is found and raised in a ghetto, learning a lifestyle that completely contradicts that of Yukio’s.
As an adult, Yukio marries Rin (Ryo), a delicate and gorgeous amnesiac. Soon after, Shigefumi appears. He throws Yukio into a well and begins to torment both the husband and the wife by masquerading as Yukio. Left to die in the well, Yukio and the audience soon learn that Rin and Shigefumi had a serious relationship in the past.
Tsukamoto’s subtle and well-paced film appeases longtime fans, genre film enthusiasts, and general fans of cinema. From the beginning, I was amazed by the director’s ability to control the audience through slow movements of the camera, the colors of the clothing and props, and even the characters’ speech. Gemini represents the talent of Shinya Tsukamoto in its most matured state. With this film, he has panned the spectrum of directing and proven that not only can he use science fiction and ultra-violence to achieve socio-political goals, but he can do the same with classic genres as well.
Shinya Tsukamoto is one of the few filmmakers whose entire filmography leaves me in a state of awe. His style of writing and directing is rich and unique: it is able to tear the audience from their seats and actually pull them into the film. This versatile filmmaker, who explores and stretches boundaries every time he experiments with cinema, proves his genius with each consecutive film that he directs, writes, or starts in, and the mark he has made becomes deeper and more defined every time.
Tsukamoto has found a home in every genre that he has endeavored, and so it becomes difficult to speculate about where his next film will take viewers, but it’s a safe bet that each succeeding release will carry us into a world that we never could have imagined.
I had the good fortune of talking to Tsukamoto-san. Here is a transcript on my interview with him. Special thanks to Yaskuko Randt Shimizu who helped translate our conversation.
Matthew Eberhart: How did you get started with film?
Shinya Tsukamoto: I was fourteen years old and in middle school when my father brought home a Super-8 camera. He let me use it, and I began learning different techniques.
The generation before mine was preoccupied with being anti- something, and the generation before theirs was involved with the war. I grew up in a relatively peaceful world, but simultaneously, the cartoons and monster movies that I grew up watching were very aggressive. I was fascinated by these cartoons and experimented with their styles using my camera.
ME: Much of your work has an abrasive, underlying focus on the metropolis and technology. From where does this originate?
ST: I was born in Tokyo in 1960 and I grew up there. Although it is the world’s largest peaceful city, there is always something going on. It is sometimes hard to find a harsh idea on which one can base a film, but I have always found the darker parts of the city to be so interesting.
ME: The composer for all of your major films, Chu Ishikawa, seems to be your aural twin. How did you two meet?
ST: Chu Ishikawa is very patient and understanding. Like other composers, he listens carefully. I can ask him for any type of change in the music, and he will do it well.
With Tetsuo, for instance, I asked for music of iron, and another time I asked for music of water. Each time, I got wonderfully good results!
ME: You sometimes play major roles in your own films. Do you act for pragmatic, budgetary reasons or do you write these roles with yourself in mind?
ST: Acting has always been something that I have loved. I am a shy person in reality, but since grade school I have been acting. Playing these roles helps me better express myself to other people.
ME: Tokyo Fist is extremely powerful. Why do you exaggerate bloodshed and violence so dramatically?
ST: My younger brother is a boxer. In this world, as long as you are in the ring, you can go so far as to kill your opponent without the laws interfering.
Since Tokyo has been so peaceful, the city has been forgetting important questions like those of life and death. With Tokyo Fist, I concentrated on these ideas through the world of boxing.
ME: Bullet Ballet has nuances that make it drastically different from any of your other films.
ST: With this film, I explore the exaggerations of the cartoon world, while concentrating on the documentary side of the story.
ME: With Gemini, you had many options not available with your other films. How was it to work with famous mainstream actors?
ST:Gemini is a Toho production and Masahiro Motoki is a very famous actor, so I wanted to use the highest levels of production possible.
I decided upon the theme of the film, but Toho initially presented me with their ideas, which stemmed from a story by Edogawa Rampo. I did things like the camerawork and story, though, like with some of my other films.
ME: Do you watch films for leisure or for inspiration?
ST: I watch films completely for pleasure, rather than to look at for inspiration… Though, I may be inspired later.
ME: You also have a theater troupe, Kaiju Theater. How is that progressing?
ST: Because I like acting so much, I started Kaijyu, and we perform all four seasons. We have built a theater that is constructed in the shape of a monster [author’s note: “kaijyu” is a monster] and the inside holds the actual stage.
ME: What are your goals for the near future?
ST: Presently, I want to do something very erotic. I also plan on ending the Tetsuo series.
ME:It would be a shame to lose that, though!
ST: I can always change my mind!
All of the films discussed above are available on VHS and DVD. There’s no central repository of Tsukamoto films but most of Cashiers du Cinemart’s advertisers carry most—if not all—of his films.
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