Tsukamoto Shin’ya (please note that I follow the Japanese way of ordering their names, with surname first and given name next: no “Yukio Mishima” in my blog) is a world-renowned Japanese filmmaker, a true maverick, a visionary and one of the pillars of the global cyberpunk cinema as it stands today. His films need little introduction to those who have been following the lineage of cyberpunk cinema or anything at all creative and/or transgressive in terms of popular culture from Japan, but just in case you are not one of them, dear reader, here goes:
Director Tsukamoto, born in 1960 and a native of Tokyo, was an early film buff, making 8-mm short films with his childhood friends. After enrolling in the prestigious Nihon University College of Arts, he devoted himself to theatrical production, while earning income and experience as a director of commercial shorts. Tsukamoto soon founded Kaiju Theater, a theatrical troupe/production company that has since served as his base for launching feature film projects. Following a series of fun and quirky short films such as The Adventures of the Electric Pole Kid (1988), Tsukamoto released Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989), a black-and-white mutant monster of a movie starring the director himself and the underground actor/punk musician/erotic cartoonist Taguchi Tomoro. Seen in grubby VHS copies throughout most of the world, the 67-minute long brain-cracker achieved the kind of notoriety seldom attained by the post-Golden Age Japanese filmmakers in ’80s: the film was outrageous, disgusting, mind-warping and weirdly beautiful, but it was also very obviously a meaningful statement, a motion picture about something: at the very least, our new post-industrial condition of being fused into metals, becoming bio-mechanoid/cybernetic creatures– melded from living organs and shiny machine parts.
Tsukamoto has since produced an astounding array of films belonging to diverse genres and exploring daring existential questions, including the harrowing, apocalyptic sequel to Tetsuo, Tetsuo 2: The Body Hammer (1993), the beautifully lensed neo-noir Bullet Ballet (1998), a ultra-stylized, butoh-inflected adaptation of Edogawa Rampo’s iconic horror novel Gemini (1999), a series of haunting explorations into the interface between psyche and bodies, including Snake of June (2003), Vital (2004) and Kotoko (2012): and of course, Tokyo Fist (1995), one of the most amazing films I have ever watched regarding the concomitant allure and terror of physical violence, perhaps my personal favorite among his extraordinary oeuvre. Despite sometimes mind-shattering levels of violence seen in his films, one of the reasons that I find Tsukamoto’s films so ultimately moving and life-affirming is his deeply compassionate gaze toward his characters, often lost, damaged and angry, but never apathetic.
I was able to secure approximately 30 minutes of interview time with director Tsukamoto, who was visiting Bucheon for a retrospective of his films (it was a rare chance to catch his then-newest film Kotoko, which still remains unavailable as DVD or Blu Ray stateside, as of May 2015). I am very happy to be able to upload it in its entirety here, subject to only a minimal level of editing to enhance intelligibility or eliminate repetitions and redundancies (mostly boring passages of myself explaining certain contexts or sidebar issues to director Tsukamoto).
For the record, this interview was originally conducted at Koryo Hotel, Bucheon, South Korea, in July 25, 2013. I would like to thank the organizers and staff of the Bucheon Fantastic Film Festival for providing me with a venue to conduct this interview.
All translations from Japanese into English are by Kyu Hyun Kim unless otherwise indicated. Interview contents are copyrighted to Kyu Hyun Kim: reproduction in parts or in entirety without a proper citation of as well as notification to the interviewer is strictly forbidden.
Q: Is this your first time in Bucheon and in Korea?
Tsukamoto: Yes, it is my first time in Bucheon but I have been in Korea a couple of times, for Busan and Jeonju Film Festivals. I have visited Busan quite a few times, in fact.
Q: What is your impression of Bucheon?
T: It sort of reminds me of Tokyo.
Q: When I was teaching a course on Japanese Popular Culture at University of California [UC Davis] at one point, I think it was two or three years after I had been appointed there in 1997, I decided to show Tetsuo to my undergraduate students.
T: Oh My. [Laughter]
Q: As you could well imagine, the student reaction was deeply split. Some students, especially female students, were nonplussed. A few of them left the classroom without bothering to see the whole thing. But the ones who remained to the last were, like, “I’ve never seen anything remotely like it!” or “Oh My God, what have I just seen?! It’s a masterpiece!” [Laughter]
T: That movie came out in 1989. It took me two years to complete. Once it came out, it won Grand Prix at Fantafestival, Italy.
Q: What was the reaction to it like in Japan?
T: It was pretty enthusiastic. Many magazines and media outlets wrote about the film, even TV news reported on it.
Q: What was the tenor of reaction, shall we say? Was it focused on the film’s innovative character?
T: Yes, that it was a strange, new kind of film, hotly received by the younger generation of filmgoers.
Q: Now that I look back at Tetsuo, I feel that it actually incorporates many classical, or old-fashioned, in a good sense, approaches to filmmaking, including, of course, stop-motion animation. Sometimes it evokes the look or feel of a silent film.
T: Right, the stop-motion effects are old-fashioned in precisely that way. I was shooting for the kind of texture one gets from the German Expressionist cinema. Also influential was the black-and-white Japanese films of yesteryears. After that… perhaps Italian Futurists. Those are visual influences on Tetsuo. It is not entirely new, you know, it does give rise to a sense of déjà vu. It is ultimately a new spin on the sort-of-familiar imagery.
© Kaiju Theater, Tetsuo: The Iron Man
Q: Could you talk about Kaiju Theater?
T: It started out as a theater troupe, but once I moved onto filmmaking on a full scale, it had to function as a production company as well. By the way, “Kaiju” with this set of Chinese characters does not mean “monster” 怪獣 but “sea beast” 海獣.
Q: I have always wondered whether you took it from Mizuki Shigeru’s comic book… [There is an episode titled “The Great Sea Beast” in Mizuki’s magnum opus comic series, Kitaro of the Graveyard]
T: Yes, yes! I love Mizuki Shigeru. I didn’t actually take that name from Kitaro, but I love that kind of imagery.
Q: Is Kaiju Theater mainly a theater troupe that happens to double as a film production company? Or is film production its main business these days?
T: It started out as a theater troupe. The same group of personnel– staff and actors– first made The Adventures of the Electric Pole Kid and then Tetsuo: The Iron Man. We have not staged any theater production since then. So we are pretty much committed to cinema, except for a few special occasions. I do feel an itch to try live theater once in a while, though. But we’ve got a lot of potential projects for movies lined up… they inevitably get the nods first.
Q: You have acted in your movies, and in other director’s films, quite often as a matter of fact. When David Cronenberg played the villain in Clive Barker’s Nightbreed (1990) he said he did it because he wanted to experience the filmmaking process from the other end of the camera. What are your views about yourself as an actor?
T: I have always been an introverted child. Acting in front of other kids during the school was an eye-opening experience for me. It was so enjoyable that it was as if I realized the sky was blue for the first time in my life. So acting is very important for me. Acting for other director’s films is as meaningful for me as acting for my own films.
Q: Oh, so you are happiest when you are acting?
T: I wouldn’t go that far… acting sometimes makes me tense, and also things can get tough when I cannot quite come up with what is required in a role… but once I have got it right, the sense of release and joy I derive from it is… tremendous.
Q: What is your favorite performance you have given in someone else’s project?
T: Oh, there are a few… one that I had a great fun making is Travail (2001: directed by Otani Kentaro). I played the husband of a pro lady Chinese chess player, in a kind of romantic comedy situation. A wonderful experience, it was.
© Kaiju Theater, Tetsuo 2: Body Hammer
Q: After you have completed Tetsuo, were you consciously trying to expand your filmography into new directions?
T: I wasn’t particularly conscious of new directions but I had a lot of ideas, the ideas that covered many different themes as well as genres.
Q: Please allow me to interject my personal views here… I wept my eyeballs out watching Tokyo Fist, it was so touching and amazing.
T: Oh really?
Q: I saw that movie, I think, right after I had married my wife… and the relationship between the protagonist and his girlfriend somehow really spoke to me.
T: That’s wonderful.
Q: Can you speak a bit about the depiction of the female protagonist, Hizuru, in Tokyo Fist? It seems that the boxer hero in that film [played by Tsukamoto himself] sees only Hizuru’s interior self and no matter how much violence from her he is subject to, he does not change his view about her as a person, to the extent that perhaps he might be seen as a masochist by some viewers.
T: Thank you so much for saying that. Indeed, I had been making films mainly from the male POV, but with Tokyo Fist, I was influenced by the rise of woman’s power during that era [early ’90s]. I believe that is why Hizuru’s character shaped up to become what she is on screen. It was a challenge to create a strong woman character who would be noticed by female viewers.
Q: Tokyo Fist begins with a competition between two macho men, but as the movie progresses, Hizuru becomes stronger…
T: …and men become weaker. I followed my instincts, or “senses,” when I was making that film. I think it was the first time in my films that a female character really ended up dominating the whole film.
Q: As for Kotoko, the eponymous protagonist is played by Cocco, a singer from Okinawa. Was Kotoko’s TV-induced terrible delusion of her child being killed some kind of a political statement [about the U.S. military presence in Okinawa]?
T: Ahh, right, you can certainly read it that way, but when I filmed it, it was meant to be a distillation of all the terrifying images we routinely see on TV news. I hated watching world news programs on TV when I was growing up.
Q: You use a lot of extreme close-ups and handheld camera. Are there any difficulties associated with this type of technique?
T: I am most interested in capturing a natural expression of an actor, like that. So I favor filming at such close quarters.
Q: Do you rehearse a lot?
T: You know, digital camera actually allows me to do “filmed rehearsals,” which used to be a luxury. I was not able to do that when I was making movies on film.
© Kaiju Theater, Fujii Kaori as Hizuru in Tokyo Fist
Q: Shall we talk about your collaborators? One of the most important ones is of course Ishikawa Chu, your soundtrack composer.
T: I already had some ideas about what kind of music to be used for Tetsuo, largely based on sampling of existing music. So I looked for anyone who could do sampling and editing of music really well. In that process I ran into Mr. Ishikawa. Initially I thought he was a one-note composer, you know, specializing in a certain kind of steel-clanking noises [Laughter], but I soon learned he was able to respond to my requests and thoughts quite creatively. He is a truly versatile composer.
Q: What are your views of the role music should play in a motion picture?
T: I started out as a visual artist so “picture” is very important but I do not think “picture” is more important than “sound.” They are both top priorities. Music in my films is not just added for emotional or other effects. I want the viewers of my movies to experience their music, like they are inside a club listening to a live band.
Q: How about Taguchi Tomoro? Did he debut with Tetsuo?
T: He did act in a couple of films before Tetsuo. But yes, he became closely associated with cinema following that film. Before that he was mostly a punk rocker, a vocalist in a punk band.
Q: Have you been conscious about the position your films assume within the framework of SF genre?
T: In terms of science fiction films, I must cite Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982). I love both films deeply. As for the science fiction literature, I don’t think I have been influenced by them that much. I certainly have not been an avid reader of SF novels.
Q: Do you consider yourself an urbanite?
T: Absolutely. I was born in Tokyo and have grown up in the middle of the city. Actually, I think this fact is the reason that I harbor a desire or a fantasy to escape into the countryside which surfaces once in a while. Ultimately, though, I am a Tokyoite. I do wish for a bit more of “nature” in my life, but that’s probably wishful thinking.
© Kaiju Theater, Tokyo Fist.
Q: Could you tell me a bit about your impression of Korean cinema?
T: Oh, I think from about ten years ago, Koreans have produced quite a chunk of wonderful films. There are many really interesting ones. Old Boy (2003) was so ambitious and amazing. I loved The Uninvited (2003) too… and of course The Host (2006).
Q: Have you been offered any project from Hollywood?
T: In ’90s, there was a lot of talk from the U.S. about inviting me to Hollywood, but since then they seem to have lost interest somewhat. They still bring projects to me once in a while. There has been a talk about doing an American version of Tetsuo, but they could not quite convince me that it could be done right. Maybe a bit more promising was an American version of Nightmare Detective, but that did not pan out either.
Q: What is your next film?
T: I do have a project in development, but funding is always a problem. I have started filming just before coming to Bucheon, based on an idea that I have been nurturing for many years. It is completely different from Kotoko in terms of approach and genre, but there is a thematic connection. It will be a film about Japan’s dangerous slide into recognition and acceptance of war.
Q: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and views.
As a postscript, I am happy to note that in the intervening two years director Tsukamoto has completed his eagerly awaited new film, Nobi (Fires on the Plain), a remake of the Ichikawa Kon classic, itself based on the classic anti-war novel by O-oka Shohei. It is set to be released domestically on July 25, 2015, and I hope to catch it in Tokyo this summer.