Friday, May 8, 2009

Talking with Kazuyoshi Kumakiri and Ryuichi Honda at Nippon Connection

by Chris MaGee

Ever since returning from Frankfurt and the 9th Annual Nippon Connection Film Festival a couple weeks back I've been working through a backlog of reviews and interviews. This week I wanted to post what was probably the crowning point of my Nippon Connection experience: moderating a round table discussion with filmmakers Kazuyoshi Kumakiri (above right) and Ryuichi Honda (above left) about their films "Non-ko" and "GS Wonderland". I had originally got an email from Nippon Connection programming director Alex Zahlten asking if I wanted to interview the "wild children" of the Osaka University of the Arts Film Program when I was in Frankfurt, and I had assumed that it would be for the Pow-Wow, but once at the fest I was surprised and honoured that he wanted me to chat with both directors as an official Nippon Connection event. I think I must have blushed, and of course I said yes immediately.Before we all sat down late in the evening on the third day of the festival Alex had said that he wanted the discussion to be informal and relaxed, so I immediately requested we have a a bunch of beer on stage to lubricate things a bit. It seemed to work for the most part, except I think that Kumakiri got a little bit drunk. Both men were more than happy to discuss the films they had brought to Frankfurt, but Honda proved to be the more talkative of the two. In retrospect it was a bit of a flip-flop because I had enjoyed "Non-ko" a lot more than "GS Wonderland", but Honda proved to be a much more entertaining interview.

Alex had assured me that our full hour a a half discussion and Q&A session with the audience was going to be edited and posted at Nippon Connection's official site in the very near future, but I wanted to post some of the highlights of our talk here for the regular readers of the Pow-Wow blog. Here's a little of what Kumakiri and Honda had to say about being friends and classmates at the Osaka University of the Arts, the inspirations behind their most recent films, what it was like working with high-profile and veteran actors as well as how they first came to realize that they wanted to pursue a career in film.

CM: I wanted to start off by asking Kumakiri-san and Honda-san about studying at the Osaka University of the Arts (above right). Osaka for people who don't is thought of as kind of this rough and ready creative center and much less polite than the rest of Japan. You were both in film school at the same time. Were you working on each others projects? Were you friends at the time?

Honda: It's true that we were both in the same year at the Osaka University of the Arts and we're often introduced as being from that University, from Osaka, and actually when I got into the University I also had this image of Osaka having a very vivid culture, but actually our school happened to be an hour away from Osaka city in the middle of the mountains so we actually didn't have much influence from the Osaka culture at all. It was more of an enclosed area, a closed atmosphere where we stayed with other students and made our independent films everyday. Regarding our relation during our student days if I was making a film Kumakiri would help me out and vice versa.

CM: I was wondering if you had any stories about Nakajima-sensei? [Director Sadao Nakajima (above left) whose films include many of Toei's famed yakuza eiga like 1969's "Memoir of Japanese Assassins"and 1974's "Gokudo VS Mamushi", and who teaches graduate film studies at the Osaka University of the Arts.]

Honda: Basically the educational system at the Osaka University of the Arts was film what you want to film, so we were actually given a lot of freedom and it wasn't like Nakajima-san was giving us a lot of instruction, it was more like we would shoot something and then show it to him. He would give his advice and then we would continue to shoot.

Kumakiri: I think what I learned from Nakajima-san too was that he's actually someone who has a lot of experience in filmmaking, he's made a huge amount of films, so he has a lot of experience. So he would would often say "Oh, yeah, yeah... I made the same mistake when I was young"; so he was very convincing. He wasn't the type of person who was theoretical about anything.

The conversation then moved onto Kumakiri's latest film "Non-ko".

CM: I was wondering if you could tell us a bit about "Non-ko", maybe for people who haven't seen it yet.

Kumakiri: My latest film "Non-ko" is a film where the main character is a woman, so far most of my main characters have been men. I wanted to portray a woman and to make her believable.

CM: You've said in interviews that when you're making a film the actors are the most important thing, and that in making "Nonko" the relationship with the lead actress, Maki Sakai, was the most important thing. I was wondering what he found that was so interesting to create a film for her?

Kumakiri: Maki Sakai is a very well known actress in Japan and she was already working as an actress when I was in junior high school and in high school, so she has a long career and is of course a good actress, but what I wanted to explore wasn't so much good acting, but more the history of someone who had been acting for so long and the human being rather than in the acting in the film.

C.M.: Screenwriter Takashi Ujita collaborated with you previosuly on your films that Sakai-san starred in like "Green Mind, Metal Bats" and "Freesia". I was wondering if she had any input into the development of the script and the character?

Kumakiri: The story itself was put together even before I met Maki Sakai, but actually when I met her of course the script suited her well and it became more fleshed out in a way. Definitely I also developed a stronger emotional relationship to the character.

The film started as an original story idea you had, correct?

Kumakiri: Yes, it had a lot of relation to my life, for example the relationship with my father.

C.M.: Did you base any of the characteristics of Nonko on any existing actresses?

Kumakiri: No. Nonko isn't based on any existing actress or talent, but in Japan, and I think there might be something similar in Germany, there is a late night show called "Wonderful" and you have these talents who only work as talents for a year. I was always wondering what happens to them later on. So I was thinking that in Hokkaido where I come from those people could be there too.

C.M.: What filmmakers inspired you in your University days and what filmmakers inspire you currently?

Kumakiri: I'm inspired by Martin Scorsese and the early Takeshi Kitano.

From Kumakiri's "Non-ko" the conversation shifted to Honda's "GS Wonderland".

C.M.: The 60's seem to come up again and again in your films. Wasn't it true that your graduating project at the Osaka University of the Arts was based around the Group Sounds scene?

Honda: Parallel to studying film to become a director I had always had this hobby, I just loved the 60's, and the 60's culture and 60's music. So for a while making films and my hobby for 60's culture had nothing to do with each other. It had no relation actually. In the beginning when I entered film school I wanted to do more cyber, action, sci-fi films, but making films during my University times I started to more and more bring in the 60's culture, which I loved so much, into my films. My graduation piece "Tokyo Shameless Paradise" became a fusion of those two things.

C.M.: What kind of filmmakers from the 60's inspired you?

Honda: I have a great love for Japanese films of the 60's, not so much the art independent films, but more the commercial films. There's one director that I really loved, Teruo Ishii, who had a huge influence on me. By the way, the last work of Teruo Ishii, "Blind Beast vs. Killer Dwarf" (below) in this film Kumakiri was shooting the making-of film and I was helping as an assistant on the film itself, so we were both able to work on his film set.

C.M.: It must have been a huge honour.

Honda: Yes, indeed. I so much loved his films and they were something that I was always following, they were something that I'd been aware of. There's a craziness about his films and I was always wondering where does that come from. The shooting of such a film. I always wanted to witness that. Yeah, we learned a lot from working with him on the set.

C.M.: A lot of people in Europe and in America know Chiaki Kuriyama from "Kill Bill" and "Battle Royale" and I think they'd be interested in knowing what it was like working with her on "GS Wonderland".

Honda: As you say she's so famous with "Battle Royale and Kill Bill" and I said to myself "Yeah, she's a huge actress, she's a diva" and I was actually a bit nervous about working with her, but she is actually very pure, very honest and very serious about her work. I even asked her to do some emabarrassing things and she would do them no problem. She's actually someone who's very detailed and very strict with her work and it was very easy to work with her. When I first met her I gave her the DVD "Stray Cat Rock" and Meiko Kaji, a very famous actress from that time was playing in the film and I asked her to play like Meiko Kaji.

C.M.: Another person who's in the film is Ittoku Kishibe, who was in probably the biggest Group Sounds band, The Tigers(above right). I was wondering if he told you any stories about those days?

Honda: Unfortunately we only shot for one day with Kishibe-san on the set. We were very short of time, so I didn't have time that day to talk with him about the 60's, but before that when we did the costume fitting, which was the first time I met him, we talked about the script. I said "Well, you know I didn't live in the 60's so I had to use my imagination in the script and do you think it's okay like that," and he said... He wasn't actually a music industry person in the 60's, he was a musician playing in the band up front. He said I was playing, so I wasn't part of the behind-the-scenes industry, but I think that the people in the record companies were probably very much like the character [I'd written]. So that was a big relief for me. And I also asked him for an autograph.

C.M.: Who wrote the songs for The Diamonds in "GS Wonderland"?

Honda: The 60's have many revivals and many booms, and there was a period in the 80's in Japan were there were people copying GS which they called Neo-GS, so they covered songs from the GS bands from the 60's. And there was a band from that time called Phantom Lift and they wrote all the songs in the film.

Just before the Q&A session the questions shifted back to both filmmakers.

C.M.: What future projects do you have in development at the moment?

Kumakiri: I actually have two feature film projects coming up right now. I will shoot two films from this fall until next spring in Hokkaido which is where I'm from. One film has to do with forgiving, which is quite a heavy theme, and the second one... so far most of my films have dealt with one main character who is forced into a difficult situation, so in this second project I want to have a broader view.

Honda: "GS Wonderland" is a music film, but it is also very much a dialogue-driven film, so my next project I would like to have more action. I don't know when I'm going to start shooting it, but that will be next for me.

I have to be honest and say that by the time the Q&A session began the big Saturday night party for Nippon Connection was under way and there was a bit of a mass exodus of audience members anxious to get downstairs. Still there were a few solid questions. Here's just a couple that stuck out for me:

How did you get the other members of the band in "GS Wonderland" to prepare for playing in a Group Sounds band?

Honda: I gave them a lot of material from the 60's. I gave them photographs, I showed them record jackets to give them an idea of what it was all about. I also put together a CD of songs that I really loved, and I gave it to them and asked them to listen to it all the time, but I wondered if they actually listened at all. I think not because once during the shoot I went to their dressing room and the three guys were listening to hip hop music, so I doubt they were listening to GS at all. I guess they just didn't like it.

What was the reason you wanted to become a film director?

Honda: For me I was in an all boys high school and there was a festival every year and my class tried to make a stage play based on "Battles Without Honour and Humanity" (above). So after class we would all get together and we would rehearse. We would use cheap tricks like we would have shredded radish and put it here [along the belly] and spread so it looked like blood was coming out, and I really enjoyed it. The making of this stage play, that's when I first thought of working in a field where I could do this and get to play around.

Kumakiri: I think for me it was kind of similar. I also loved films as a child and I was always thinking that it would be nice if I could go in the direction of making films, but I had no camera then, so I was actually drawing comics. Then in my first year of high school I had a chance to have a video camera, but I had no clue about how to do the music or to edit, so I would hold the video camera with my right hand and play the harmonica with my left hand.

*Thanks to Fei Phoon, Nippon Connection photgrapher for the top photos of Ryuichi Honda and Kazuyoshi Kumakiri.

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