Documentary Laid Bare: Tetsuaki Matsue

By Maggie Lee

tetsuaki-matsue.jpgTetsuaki Matsue

A young film-maker who operates in a hybrid zone between documentary and fiction, the industry and the avant-garde, art and porn, digital ephemera and film festivals

Documentary filmmaker, critic, Adult Video artist, B-movie and Asian film Aficionado, Japanese youth subculture guru, youngest juror of Tokyo International Film Festival’s ‘2006 Winds of Asia’ section. Tetsuaki Matsue is a man who wears many hats, but most of all he loves to be naked – whether it’s stripping down to appear in his and other people’s AVs (Adult Videos), or revealing raw and honest emotions in his own films which combine pornography and documentary with fictionalised ‘fake’ elements.

Maggie Lee: You seem to like having ‘Naked’ as a title for your works (eg. Amamiya Manami’s Naked Documentary, and Identity AKA Seki Rara, which literally means ‘naked’ in Japanese).

Tetsuaki Matsue: For me, naked doesn’t have to refer to just the body, it epitomizes my desire to shoot a face without any fakeness, to let personality come out.

ML: So far, you have only made documentary-style films.

TM: When I was a first year film student, I was asked to write a fiction script, but no matter how I tried, I couldn’t do it. After graduation, I worked as a trainee assistant director for V-Cinema (straight-to-video non-theatrical films). What stimulated me was not the performances or the script, but the interactions with the cast – like finding out why the actresses lie to their parents in the countryside in order to come to Tokyo to perform.

Whether it’s AV stars or ordinary subjects of documentaries, people often lie to the camera. Their motives for lying become clues to find out deeper, hidden truths about them. People all have their own way of lying – it’s amusing to see their methods, and people tend to lie more when they are appearing in a documentary.

Nowadays in Japan, rather than making fiction films, many young people are making documentaries focusing on themselves, because they want to create relationships, and the camera is their preferred communication tool.

doutei-produce-tetsuaki-matsue.jpgDoutei Produce, 2006

ML: What’s your personal stance as a documentary filmmaker?

TM: As a student I was taught that when the subject of a documentary gets used to the presence of the camera, he or she stops noticing it, and it’s supposed to be good to achieve that. I disagree -- I want the subject to be aware of the camera all the time, because the film cannot be made without a camera, so why pretend it doesn’t exist?

If I am holding the camera myself, then what I capture is limited to the relationship between director and subject at that given point in time, and that’s a choice I make. At other times, when I want to show other things, such a two-person relationship, I ask the cameraman to shoot while I am interviewing a subject, in order to convey a certain atmosphere. Even if the subject is giving same answer, whoever is holding the camera can achieve a very different result.

ML: In Anyong Kimchi (1999), you explored your identity as a Zainichi Korean (Permanent Ethnic Korean Resident of Japan) through tracing your family history. By trying to understand the mentality behind your grandfather’s efforts to be integrated into Japanese society you also raised issues about nationalism and racial discrimination. Is your Korean Japanese identity an issue that you want to expand on?

TM:I don’t think I will ever go back to make a film in such a personal style as Anyong Kimchi, but I would still like to explore the subject of identity, except to extend the theme to a broader spectrum of society. I hate directors who keep on making statements about themselves. I want to discover other people’s stories, because even if the theme remains the same, different subjects give a variety of answers.

sekirara-tetsuaki-matsue.jpgIdentity AKA Seki Rara, 2006

ML: You have directed and co-directed, and edited quite a few AVs (Adult Videos). What is the process of making an AV like for you as a filmmaker?

TM: AV is the catalyst for me to persuade my subjects to open up. My approach is the same as in a documentary like Anyong Kimchi. When shooting AVs, the director usually watches as the actress strips and has sex. I want to play a collaborative or even conspirator’s role, and put myself on the same level as her, so she will feel less shy and uncomfortable. Usually, the AV male star only comes along on the days of shooting the sex scenes, but the director spends the whole time with the AV actress, so she may feel closer to the director.

ML: You have mixed up the AV format with documentaries, and vice versa. Every Japanese Woman Makes Her Own Curry is a documentary about people you know, but the style self-consciously parodies the narrative conventions of AV. How did that come about and how did you find the subjects?

TM: Actually with that film, I was restricted in my choices because I haven’t got that many female friends who can make curry! I wanted to depict ordinary people, and express life’s small, happy details. Curry is such an ordinary dish in Japan, but every person has their own cooking style, just like there is variety in the most mundane aspects of life. Japanese curry takes about an hour to cook, so in that time, I can get the subject to talk on any topic I like. And curry tastes better left overnight, so it gives me an excuse to sleep over, and learn more about them.

It also allows me a chance to visit the subjects’ individual homes, as well as the areas they live in. For Tokyo residents, every ku (district) has its own character and a particular type of resident, and I wanted to capture the variety and sense of place of Asagaya (where film festival professional Kayoko Nakanishi lives), Shinagawa (home of Pink Film actress Eri) and Nerima (my girlfriend’s place).

ML: Is that why you asked Manami Amamiya (a famous AV star) to make a packed lunch in her apartment, and to take you to the place that most reminds her of her family?

TM: Exactly. At first Manami refused to let me shoot in her apartment. The kind of subject who is willing to invite me into their homes already suggests that they can open up to me, so this request becomes a test for the potential relationship between filmmaker and filmed subject.

In my latest film Doutei Produce, the subject is Kaga, a 24-year-old otaku (Japanese term for obsessive geek) and self-confessed virgin. For the film, I set him up to make an AV with an attractive model on whom he has a huge crush. My main interest is in this guy’s feelings toward the girl, and his relationship with the director. So I edited it in a non-linear way, jumbling up the dates, and pretending that it happened over three days when actually shooting was finished in a day. We also rehearsed some of the ‘real’ scenes and did several takes. But his emotions were real, and that’s what’s important.

I concealed his love from the actress, and all along she thought he was acting when he declared his love for her. She only found out at the test screening, and ran out of the theatre. He chased after her… now that’s another story. There will be a sequel, which I am now wrapping up now.

sekirara-tetsuaki-matsue-2.jpgIdentity AKA Seki Rara, 2006

ML: What happens in that?

TM: When I made Doutei Produce I’d asked Kaga to go back to his hometown and shoot scenes of his family. Unfortunately, I had to edit them out due to the time limit. So, a lot of Part 2 takes place in his town, where he and his father eat curry by the seaside, and his brother plays instruments naked at home. It also records how Kaga broke into his high school to put up a pin-up magazine in the classroom. Tokyo is too extreme. I think the regional towns show a more authentic image of Japan. So in this film, I want to show a certain type of local people, who have plenty of money and are bored out of their brains.

ML: You’ve made ‘Making of’ documentaries for other well-known director’s films, such as Naomi Kawase’s Shara (2003). How do you approach that?

TM: For that one, I determined the theme would be the teenage actor’s real crush on the actress – so there are many close-ups, and it ends with him singing a love song he wrote for her. To build up the atmosphere she envisaged for Shara, Kawase asked these two young stars to live in together as the characters, one month before shooting. She actually cooked up the romance by deliberately creating the conditions for the actor to become besotted with the actress. By the time I arrived on the location, I intuitively picked up Kawase’s intentions so that’s what I focused on.

I despise those ‘making of’s that show the cast and crew all straining for perfection. It’s so straight-faced. Trying your best in a production goes without saying – what’s the big deal? I want to capture something funny and natural, and I don’t need to use visually gorgeous images. The camera in a ‘making of’ shouldn’t occupy the same space as the camera for the main feature.

ML: How marginal are you in the Japanese film industry?

TM: I am one out of a thousand in the mainstream. Even when one of my films got a full house when it screened in an art house theatre in Shimokitazawa, the audience only came to 1000 per screening. The national box office for Niho Chinbotsu (Japan Sinks) (a massive Japanese hit in 2006) was 100,000 tickets sold.

Actually, in Japan, many mainstream directors are also engaged in this marginal stuff, or small Internet movies. They don’t distinguish between mainstream and alternative. However, the problem is the widening gap in the market when the audience base is so scattered, making it difficult for directors to be more diverse. So the extreme becomes more extreme, and it becomes isolated.

To read Tetsuaki Matsue’s feature on new extreme independent cinema in Japan turn to page 12. If you can read Japanese, Matsue’s blog is

Maggie Lee is a writer based in Japan, and co-editor with Ben Slater of the Japan pages of this issue of Vertigo.