In the late 1989 Shinya Tsukamoto went from making low budget 8mm films and leading a renegade street theatre troupe in Tokyo to being a bright light on the international film festival scene with his man vs. machine masterpiece "Tetsuo the Iron Man". Throughout the 90's Tsukamoto's transformative and often confrontational brand of surreal "body horror", as exemplified by films such as "Tetsuo the Body Hammer", "Tokyo Fist" and "Bullet Ballet", had critics calling him the "new" David Cronenberg or David Lynch. By the end of the decade, though, Tsukamoto was no longer being compared to these veteran filmmakers. Instead he had become the master of a style that was being imitated by young filmmakers at home in Japan (Shozin Fukui, Masato Tsujioka) and abroad (Darren Aronofsky). Tsukamoto would experiment with and expand upon his signature style throughout the 00's, gaining critical critical praise for such films as 2004's "Vital" and 2005's "Haze". He even flirted with mainstream studio success with his two Nightmare Detective" films the third "Tetsuo" film, Tetsuo the Bullet Man", with mixed results.
Now, after nearly a quarter of a century after he synthesized flesh and steel with "Tetsuo the Iron Man" Shinya Tsukamoto is moving on to a new chapter in his filmmaking career; a new chapter that sees him turning from the urban jungle of Tokyo to the green jungles and blue ocean of Okinawa. Accompanying him on this journey is Okinawan singer/ songwriter Cocco who portrays a mentally unstable single mother in Tsukamoto's new film "Kotoko" which had its world premiere at the 68th Venice Film Festival, where it won the Orizzonti Award for Feature Film, and North American premiere at the 36th annual Toronto International Film Festival(read Matthew Hardstaff's review of "Kotoko" here). The J-Film Pow-Wow's Chris MaGee and special translator Akane Saito were honoured to sit down and talk with Shinya Tsukamoto about "Kotoko", his street theatre roots, and his hopes to work on more animation projects. We would like to thank Kiyo Joo of Gold View Co., Ltd., for making this interview possible.
CM: You worked with Cocco on a 24-minute film "Cocco uta no o sanpo (Cocco Song Walk)". How did both of you go from that project to "Kotoko"?
ST: When I shot Cocco's music video, she happily accepted my direction. Her positive attitude helped me to ask her to play a role in my movie. That's how I could start "Kotoko". Honestly, I wanted to make a movie with her for a long time. If she hadn't offered me the opportunity to make her music video, I would have never got the chance to cast her for my movie.
CM: You have a history of casting non-actors in your films -- author Yasutaka Tsutsui [in 'Gemini'], singer Hitomi [in 'Nightmare Detective'], dancer Nami Tsukamoto [in 'Vital'], photographer Eric Bossick [in 'Tetsuo the Bullet Man'] and now Cocco. What do you see in these people that leads you to cast them in key roles, as opposed to professional actors? Cocco in particular is an unusual choice, but one which seems to have paid off very well.
ST: I'm not particularly motivated to cast non-actors. It's not my goal to cast only professional actors either. Everyone in this world has the potential to be cast. For my films I would rather cast without any restrictions. My point of view is whether she or he has a strong “presence” —this is the most important thing to me. Even if they aren’t professional actors, they can handle playing their role once we start working together. I regard “presence” as the most important factor for casting.
CM: I noticed young director Ryugo Nakamura [15-year-old director of 'The Catcher on the Shore'] in "Kotoko".
ST: He is Cocco's friend. Ah, no no no, she gave him her song for "The Catcher on the Shore".
CM: There is a common theme in your films of physical expression, both violence, but also dancing and, now with "Kotoko", singing. Do you see these as cathartic for your characters, or for you as a filmmaker?
ST: It's for my own catharsis. My works are based on pursuing the possibility of human body. I wanted to express life in the city by showing a human body turned into iron ['Tetsuo the Iron Man'(1989)], or in a dream-like reality, you would sense the reality of the body through boxing ['Tokyo Fist'(1995)]. “The metropolis and the human” used to be my main theme until I made ['Tetsuo the Bullet Man' (2010)]. Now I'm trying to move on to the next stage. Besides, Cocco is a singer, but she wanted to become a ballerina in the very beginning. Since her interest is to seek the potential of the human body, I realized Cocco's and my ideas were very much the same.
CM: So it comes from Cocco as an actress, and her as a person… or the way of your own expression?
ST: Well, I rather say both. Her songs were indispensable in this film because Cocco is such a great singer. I interviewed her extensively before I started writing the script. After I created the story, I showed the script to her and asked her if there was anything in it that didn’t fit with her thoughts. I removed every part that didn’t suit her. In that way Cocco was already Kotoko when we started shooting, She took quite a lot of the lead herself.
CM: Digital technology seems to have allowed you to embrace a new, almost naturalistic style in "Kotoko" with long takes of certain scenes that would have been difficult with film cameras. How has the new digital shooting technology affected your style?
ST: I am a director who likes the medium of film. However, it's really difficult to cover the budget for filming. Besides, the digital technology is far more convenient than conventional film cameras. It allows you to shoot much more simply than with the you'd use to working with film. It's also very convenient for editing. Now the visual quality is really close to as film has as well. Sure, I still like film, but I don't hesitate to use digital technology. I suppose now we are in the transitional period between film and digital.
AS: Would you consider to keep using film for your project?
ST: I don't have plan to use film right now. Sometimes I consider to use it again, but I would rather choose digital nowadays.
CM: When I was watching "Kotoko"' I noticed you are back in Okinawa. In "Vital" (2004) you went to Okinawa. And now you returned to Okinawa with "Kotoko". I know Cocco is from Okinawa, but is there something about Okinawa that fascinates you or inspires you?
ST: I knew Cocco was born in Okinawa. Honestly, I was somewhat inspired by her when I wrote the script for "Vital". It wasn't just because it was Cocco's birthplace. I already had dreams about Okinawa since I saw a collection of photographs at a school library when I was still in middle school. At that time, my interest in Okinawa came from its scenic beauty. Nowadays, whenever I go to Okinawa, I visit the Himeyuri Monument [a monument in Itoman, Okinawa dedicated to a nursing unit for the Imperial Japanese Army during WW2] to pray, or see around the U.S. base —I end up spending time, thinking, seeing the place from different aspects than I had in my youth.
left: The Situation Theatre, right: "The Phantom of Regular Size" (1986)
CM: When you first started your career you created a street theatre company [Kaijyu Theater] similar to Juro Kara's Situation Theatre, or Red Tent Theatre. Later on in your film "Gemini" (1999) you cast dancer and actor Akaji Maro, who was a founding member of the Situation Theatre, in a role. How big an influence does the underground theatre and arts of the 60's influence you, both when you began and today?
ST: Probably I was a high school student at that time. A red tent set up under a railway bridge made me curious whenever I saw it below the train as I went to school. I knew the theatre was organized by Juro Kara, and I found his books at a bookstore. Although I didn't understand the story of his play at all the picture of it reminded me of the Takarazuka Revue. I was fascinated by its charm, so that's how I ended up visiting his theatre for the first time and the performance was incredibly fun to me. Since then, I have been crazy about his stage work. They hold shows twice a year, and they have became huge events for me. It is still hard for me to explain my fascination for his plays. I've really been influenced by them, definitely. My work is a combination of those underground arts and the very orthodox Japanese films done by major studios.
CM: You, I think, have been very protective of your early 8mm films like "The Phantom of Regular Size"(1986) and "The Adventures Of Electric Rod Boy" (1987), but many have found their way illegally on to the internet. How do you feel about this internet age when your films and other director's films are shared and seen this way?
ST: It's hard to say… I feel "How come you can watch my films without my permission?" At the same time, those are my past works and they're somewhat troublesome to watch full-length at once. So clips uploaded online of those films, the trailers, end up introducing my films to people. In that way, it would be pity if all of those clips and trailers were deleted because of copyright. It has to be judged case by case. I would absolutely forbid for people to watch a full-length movie online with high resolution, but it's not a serious problem if short parts of the movie are uploaded as a teaser for the audience. It's actually interesting for me to watch someone who has re-edited a film with their own favorite music.
CM: There were many critics who were very harsh about your film before "Kotoko", "Tetsuo the Bullet Man". Do you think that that film was treated fairly?
ST: Well, I know I should have studied what critics wrote a little more. Perhaps I didn’t read them carefully. The movie wasn't a hit. That is true. Maybe, I shouldn’t have said so in interview...! I pay usually attention to what critics say about my films usually, but most of them are written in English. Besides I hardly found any reviews, neither good nor bad, in Japan. The movie was sort of ignored [in Japan]. I didn’t understand much although I read some reviews in English. I may have done something reckless in "Tetsuo the Bullet Man", I guess.
CM: But with screenings of "Kotoko" in Venice and now in Toronto, have you been happy with the way audiences have received this film?
ST: Definitely. A small team of people might be best for my projects. I have mostly worked with large crews over the last ten years, but now I've returned to my style, working through the whole process by myself as I used to do before. I like to be involved in every aspect, step by step. I did co-write scripts with others during the last ten years, and now with Cocco for "Kotoko" too, but as long as I am working on my own project... I am eager to get back to writing scripts by myself and editing without assistance. Taking on these roles is very important to me.
CM: You created an animated film for the Ca' Foscari Cinema in Venice. It was just 24-seconds long, but it was very exciting. Do you ever think you would want to direct an animated film?
ST: Sure, I would like to! I have always had a desire to make animation. The one I made for the university partially captured what I want to do [with animation]. While working on the short I was finally convinced of the potential. I'd really like to work in animation.
AS: So you were asked to make this animation from the university?
ST: Yes. When they hold the events, you'll see a short clip before the main film. My animation is used for that.
AS: What kind of technique did you use when you make this animation?
ST: Well, I used digital tools, but I still wanted to give it a hand-drawn impression. So I drew tiny images with my favorite B pencil. Those were really tiny like this [makes a circle with his thumb and index finger to show the small size]. I preferred not to make it something big and public —I mean more like a doodle. That's why I drew very tiny images.
CM: So, all with just a B pencil?!
ST: I bought various pencils for this project, from B, 2B, 3B, 4B, 5B, 6B, 7B, 8B... I was so eager to use all of them. Somehow I found out I like B pencil after all [laughs].
AS: Which software did you use for editing?
ST: Actually people recommended I use many different kinds of editing software for animation. I just chose the combination of Photoshop and Final Cut —the ones I use for my movies.
AS: One of my favorite novelist once mentioned that he kept a pad and paper beside his pillow for writing down dreams which could be used for his novels. I sometimes feel some scenes of your films are like scenes from a dream, or maybe like a nightmare. Are there any of your films that are based on your dreams?
ST: When I was a kid, I was always so frightened of the night because I often had nightmares. I wished somebody would come and save me from these nightmares. That desire resulted in "Nightmare Detective"(2006) and "Nightmare Detective 2" (2008).
CM: You began as a totally independent filmmaker and now, 22-years since the release of "Tetsuo the Iron Man" you have become one of the most respected filmmakers in Japan. I wonder what your thoughts are on today's jishu eiga (independent film) scene are? Are there any young filmmakers who you are excited about?
ST: Independent film... I haven't been able to watch many movies during last the ten years. I spent most of that time looking after my mother. Perhaps it sounds lame that I, as a filmmaker, don’t grasp the current trends. Still, I cannot say much about them.