Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Top Ten Performances by Shinya Tsukamoto (*in films he didn't direct)

Pow-Wow contributing writer Matthew Hardstaff came up with this month's Top Ten list during a brainstorming session recently and it was just too good to pass up. Everyone knows the films of Shinya Tsukamoto (or if you don't you should!). "Tetsuo the Iron Man", "Bullet Ballet", "Tokyo Fist", "Vital", Tsukamoto's films can easily sit alongside the work of David Cronenberg or David Lynch as some of modern cinema's best examples of the horrors that lay within our own bodies, minds and personal obsessions. Unlike those directors, though, Tsukamoto likes to star in his own films and it's from these roles that most people recognize his slighting balding, morose, hang-dog expression; but Tsukamoto has friends and they like to cast him in their films too. In honour of those times when Shinya Tsukamoto takes and let's someone else do the heavy lifting behind the camera The Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow brings you the Top Ten Performances by Shinya Tsukamoto... in films he didn't direct.

10. Otakus in Love – Matsuo Suzuki (2004)

In 2004 when “Ichi the Killer” star Matsuo Suzuki was working on his feature directorial debut, an adaptation of Jun Hanyunyuu's comedic manga “Koi no Mon”, a.k.a. “Otakus in Love”, he stacked the cast with his famous friends. Director Takashi Miike, musician and actor Kiyoshiro Imawano as well as such anime and manga luminaries as George Asakura, Hideaki Anno, and even Hanyunyuu himself make cameo appearances in the love story between Mon Aoki (Ryuhei Matsuda), an unsuccessful manga artist who works with rocks instead of pen and ink, and Koino Akashi (Wakana Sakai), an independent artist with a thing for cosplay. Suzuki worked in front of the camera too, taking on the role of Marimoda, the owner of a manga café and Aoki’s rival for Koino’s affections. Marimoda, a washed up manga artist, doesn’t have many customers coming through his café except for one: Noro, his drunken former agent played to the comedic hilt by “Ichi the Killer” co-star Shinya Tsukamoto. It’s strange to see the man who brought us such macabre and fetishistic visions as “Tetsuo the Iron Man” and “Tokyo Fist” trade in the gloom for laughs, but it’s a good strange, kind of like seeing horror author Stephen King playing up his persona for laughs in 1982 omnibus film “Creepshow”. Even though his role is very small in this rather uneven comedy Tsukamoto’s stumbling and slurring contribution to “Otakus in Love” only makes the scenes that take place in Marimoda’s manga café that much funnier. CM

9. Blind Beast vs. Killer Dwarf – Teruo Ishii (2001)

Putting Shinya Tsukamoto in an adaptation of the works of the Japanese master of the macabre, Edogawa Rampo, would seem like a no brainer and to have him play Rampo’s most famous character, Detective Kogorô Akechi, seems like a stroke of genius. Well, there was a genius behind the camera on 2001’s “Blind Beast vs. Killer Dwarf”, namely exploitation maestro Teruo Ishii, but you’d be hard pressed to see it in this ultra-low budget disaster. I’ve seen better production value in porn films than in this mish-mash of Rampo stories one of which, “Blind Beast,” was adapted a hell of lot more successfully in 1969 by Yasuzo Masumura. The film chronicles the investigation of two missing women by Akechi and his friend, novelist Monzo Kobayashi (Lily Franky playing Rampo’s own literary alter ego) one of who is being held hostage by a blind sculptor, the other by a circus dwarf; and learning that this was Ishii’s last film I’ve often wondered if what we see on display was supposed to act as some kind of video storyboard for a more finished film. With Ishii passing away 4 years later I kind of doubt it; but enough about how cheap this film looks. What about Tsukamoto? Well, it’s not like he has a huge acting range, but he pulls off a more than capable Akechi and if it weren’t for the faults of the film this performance would have ranked much higher on this list. As it stands “Blind Beast vs. Killer Dwarf” is stuck at # 9 with all of us who’ve suffered through it wondering how much better it could have been with a budget higher than $50. CM

8. The Most Terrible Time in My Life - Kaizo Hayashi (1994)

Tsukamoto's first role as an actor in a film other than his own was for Kaizo Hayashi's "The Most Terrible Time In My Life" (1994) - a highly entertaining mix of American Film Noir, French New Wave and Japanese Yakuza. Overall the film has a real strong energy to it that is kicked up by the terrific jazz score and little interesting plot quirks such as detective Maiku Hama's clients needing to pay full price for a movie ticket just because his office is above a theatre. The film swings between comedy and violence, but its central theme comments on how society views foreigners who try to integrate (ie. they will always be considered foreigners). Tsukamoto plays Yamaguchi - a member of the gang "The New Japs" who runs afoul of Hama throughout the film. Hama is a young quick-to-anger sort of fellow, so Yamaguchi has to be ready for him...Fortunately both Tsukamoto and Masatoshi Nagase (who plays Hama) are born to play crazy angry guys, so there's no lack of people suddenly going ballistic. Of course, given the noir sensibilities here, they still have to look hip and cool. Especially after they've had the snot beaten out of them. BT

7. Stairway to the Distant Past - Kaizo Hayashi (1995)

Maiku Hama returns in this 1995 sequel to "The Most Terrible Time In My Life" and so do most of the characters from the first film. This includes his friends, neighbourhood acquaintances and of course "The New Japs" - the still present gang who seem to be getting even more cocky than they already were in the initial film. This time, "The New Japs" (with Tsukamoto returning as Yamaguchi) are angling to break into the riverfront territory and don't care who they insult. This doesn't sit well with "The White Man" who has built up his business from the wreckage of the riverfront after the war, but the gang have no plans to follow any kind of old-fashioned hierarchical traditions. Even the police give "The White Man" a large berth, so "The New Japs" are delving into unchartered waters. The film is a bit darker in tone this time around (the war is still prevalent in the lives of many of these people and never quite distant enough) and there are plenty of references and indications that the class system still exists with plenty of pressure to retain "status" at all costs, But the film is still a brisk entertaining affair that takes good advantage of the choice to film in colour this time. BT

6. Dead or Alive 2: Birds - Takashi Miike (2000)

A sequel in the hands of Takashi Miike can end up being a sequel like nothing you could imagine, and that’s exactly what this film is. A sequel to a film that you would never have thought there could be a sequel too. I mean, they destroyed the planet! But he brings back the same two leads from the original Dead or Alive, Sho Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi, only this time, instead of the ballistic, drug induced sequences that dot the cinematic landscape of the first film, we settle for a more melancholic yakuza/cop film. And yet again, Shinya Tsukamoto, acting in another of Takashi Miike’s films, plays a villain who helps set the story in motion (perhaps they have some sort of deal). If not for Tsukamoto’s hyperactive performance as the mysterious magician, see the film for being one of the best sequels of all time, simply because it does what most sequels never do, and what most filmmakers would never have the balls to do. Take the characters from the first film and place them in a different environment and let the story play out, allowing the similarities and differences between the two films to resonate with one another. MH

5. The Perfect Education - Ben Wada (1999)

Sometimes I wonder what makes an actor take a part. A Perfect Education, based on a novel by Michiko Matsuda, is essentially a mediocre imprisonment drama blended with a romantic comedy. Why would Shinya Tsukamoto want to act in something like that? Well, for one, the screenplay was written by Kaneto Shindo, the writer and director of Onibaba. And for two, he gets to play comedic relief! That’s right, in a film about a 43 year old man kidnapping an 18 year old girl so he can train her to become his supreme lover, Shinya Tsukamoto plays the bumbling, zany company man that lives down stairs, who just happens to be a cross dresser. Watch as he cowers in the arms of the old man that lives beside him. Watch as desperately tries to sell gallons and gallons of bottled tap water to the other tenants. He is utterly hilarious in an over the top, mad cap kind of way. I guarantee you will never see Shinya Tsukamoto like this again. On a side note, perhaps he took the role as research for A Snake of June? Both films feature erotic content and perverted men! MH

4. A Drowning Man - Naoki Ichio (2000)

Out of all the films he’s been in, A Man Drowning is probably the only film that relies completely on Shinya Tsukamoto’s performance and that of his co-star, Reiko Kataoka. Granted many of his own directorial efforts, especially his earlier ones, feature him in a leading role with a minimal cast, and Marebito also features Tsukamoto in a leading role, across from a female co-star, but those films rely on style, technique, and the building of tension and dread through visuals, and limits Tsukamoto’s acting to theatrical reactions of fear, terror and anger. A Man Drowning is a film without any style, resorting to minimal cinematic technique; long takes, very little camera movement and naturalistic lighting. It places its actors in a room and lets them go. If they suck, the film suffers. Luckily they don’t suck, and the long scenes of silence, paired with the obvious discomfort that each spouse feels for the other, creates a growing tension and claustrophobia. Its atmosphere built on the actor’s performances, not flashy cutting and inventive framing. It’s a chance to see Shinya Tsukamoto as serious actor, and to watch him shine. MH

3. Sunday Drive - Hisashi Saito (1998)

Sometimes it seems that Tsukamoto just likes appearing in his friend's films, or in the case of Hisashi Saito's low-budget, minimalist road movie "Sunday Drive" he not only got in front of the camera, but also opened up his wallet to get the film made. "Sunday Drive" was produced by Tsukamoto's own Kaijyu Theater Productions and it's story of Okamura, a socially awkward video store manager who defends the honour of his female employee Yui (Miako Tadano) by killing her cheating boyfriend fits nicely into Kaijyu Theater's macabre output; but here Saito doesn't ask Tsukamoto to glare into the camera and froth at the mouth as a psychopathic killer. In fact he doesn't ask him to do that much at all. Tsukamoto's performance is natural, low-key and in keeping with his character almost cowardly. Yes, Okamura and Yui do end up kidnapping a little girl on their run from the law, but the worst thing they do to her is buy her ice cream. As the film progresses and Saito has us questioning exactly who struck the killing blow, or if anyone was killed at all we begin to appreciate just how bottled up Okamura has been and how eager he's been for anything to come along to break his monotone existence. CM

2. Marebito - Takashi Shimizu (2004)

"Marebito" is like one of those "what if?" comics you'd buy when you were a kid. What if Superman fought Mighty Mouse? What if The Hulk joined up with Spiderman? Or more recently what if the Alien fought the Predator? In the case of this 2004 J-Horror story about a freelance videographer who discovers a vampire girl who lives in a subterranean world beneath Tokyo the "what if?" question would be, "What if one of the biggest J-Horror directors, Takashi Shimizu cast one of Japanese "Extreme" cinema's directors in a film?" Well, "Marebito" was the answer to that question. Tsukamoto's character of the videographer, Masuoka, is probably the one role most in line with his own filmography on this list. Masuoka lives in a dimly-lit world, unable to sleep, dependent on medication, just clinging to sanity and obsessed by technology, it's use for spying on those around him and it's ability to capture images of fear and horror. Sure, the shaky handi-cam cinematography was yet another nod to "The Blair Witch Project" and having a vampire girl move into Masuoka's apartment reminded me of a scary version of Ron Howard's "Splash", but Tsukamoto brings the dread in spades to this effective if minor J-Horror entry. CM

1. Ichi the Killer - Takashi Miike (2001)

It’s really not hard to justify this film on any list, as it seems to have become the quintessential Japanese film of the 21st century. It’s not Takashi Miike’s best film by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a great blend of Yakuza action, black comedy, torture, sadomasochism, rape, and semen filled title sequences. Shinya Tsukamoto’s presence as Jijii, the mastermind behind the films events, and the lord, master and creator of Ichi, is more than enough to warrant repeat viewings. He’s an evil, brutal, manipulative villain who rarely gets his hands dirty. And besides, why wouldn’t you want to see a film in which the semen used in the title sequence is partially provided for by Shinya Tsukamoto himself! MH

1 comment:

sutherland_douglass said...

"It’s not Takashi Miike’s best film by any stretch of the imagination..."

I'd be interested to get your take on what film is Miike's best (perhaps a top 10 list in the future?). I've only seen what's available in R1, but am probably not the first to say that his enormous body of work seems, at the very least, "uneven." I've also read most of Mes' Agitator, and find his preference for certain Miike movies over others pretty interesting (often I disagree almost entirely). Anyway, my own list (and brief reasons) follow:

1. Gozu: probably not a popular choice (it certainly plays long on a first viewing), but his extended riff on and distillation of Lynch (primarily Lost Highway) is continually weird, fascinating, and creepy. Also, it has to have the best ending (and the most Miikean ending) of any Miike movie.

2. Ichi the Killer: Maybe an obvious top 5/top 10, but repeated viewings really do enhance its appeal I think. For instance, the use of soundtrack and "sound design" is unbelievably effective (though this may be a bit of an overstatement, it makes me think of someone like Welles, whose radio background paid so many dividends in his film work). Also I never get tired of watching Asano and Tsukamoto in this movie.

3. Visitor Q. With a limited budget, a fairly small cast, and not a lot of visual panache, Miike manages to fit in nearly every ingrown hang-up of his, busting taboos and making us simultaneously squeal and squirm.

4. Graveyard of Honor. I really expected not to like this one, but Miike at maybe his most realistic (and least adolescent) converted me completely. Though it's probably sacrilege, I'd have to say I prefer it over the original. Also Goro Kishitani's can't get much better I don't think.

5. Dead or Alive. The opening, the opening, the opening. That opening sequence is Miike at his most masterful (even if only for a few minutes). Also, it's my second-favorite Sho Aikawa movie (after Gozu).

If I was going to go for a full top ten, I'd have to include (in no particular order): Izo, Ley Lines, Audition, The Happiness of the Katakuris, and one other TBD...your thoughts?