Extremes of Independence

By Tetsuaki Matsue

tetsuya-mariko.jpgTetsuya Mariko

Everybody knows about ‘internationally acclaimed’ Japanese directors, but in a culture of generic adaptation and mediocrity perhaps the most exciting film-making can be discovered far away from the mainstream

Since the 1990s, Japanese films have started to become widely appreciated in the international market… Or so I hear. Living in Japan, its possible to follow the global reputation of certain Japanese directors – Takeshi Kitano, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Takashi Miike, Hayao Miyazaki, etc. Just listing all their names might take forever. “So-and-so directors’ film won the so-and-so prize at so-and-so film festival, and was greeted with standing ovation” – Such news fills the newspapers and magazines. However, reactions are different here in Japan. My friends are usually furiously disappointed, complaining about how boring these films are. It’s because we speak Japanese, so unlike foreigners reading the English subtitles, unlucky us, we understand it all and see a little too much. In effect, we end up categorising the ‘internationally acclaimed’ as the ‘not for Japanese’. Honestly though, it is popular TV series made into movies, adaptations of popular manga, or the many versions of a love story that always says ‘It makes you cry’ on its poster, that attract local audiences, not the internationally acclaimed, re-imported Japanese films. The directors of the heyday of Japanese films, including Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Shohei Imamura and Kinji Fukasaku, used to make films from original scripts. In Japan today, there are few directors that can do this and remain successful. Therefore, there are no auteurs or filmmakers anymore in the true sense.

However, there are those newcomers that make originals, despite the circumstances. They haven’t been discovered yet, and my intention in writing this article is to introduce you to these directors, and to surprise you. It is true that some of the films are difficult even to find in Japan, but I couldn’t care less. What matters is that they really do exist.

It was Company Matsuo, and not Kazuo Hara (director of Yukiyukite shingun (The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On) (1987), one of Japan’s most famous documentaries) who triggered my interest in documentaries. He’s a pornographic film director, who also makes documentaries and music videos. In his porn films, he usually uses hame-dori – where the director films himself and a woman having sex. However, what he really wants to shoot is the prelude to and aftermath of sex, and the woman’s motivation for appearing in a porn movie. His main question is “Why porno?”

Paradise of Tokyo (original title) (2005), which shows him spending a night with an actress, is a perfect example. In this film the line between fiction and non-fiction, genuine attraction and work, is hard to distinguish. The actress ends up falling for Matsuo and bursts into tears, declaring, “I want to be with you”. But he is married, so the actress apologises – “Good sex makes me cry,” she explains. Matsuo’s attraction towards her is obvious, but he lets her go. Outside the hotel window, on the video screen of Tokyo tower, we see the words ‘Find Voice In Camera’. Here, Matsuo is filming his own vacillating ego, using pornography, a type of film that cannot be made without the act of sex. His relationship with the actress only exists within the premise that it is work. It’s a reality that borders on fiction. “I LOVE PORN, I HATE PORN” is a quote Matsuo often uses to end his films. As long as there are women willing to appear in porn films, he is likely to continue filming porn, which in effect means that he will continue to question, “Why do I make porno films?”

marikos-30-pirates-tetsuya-mariko.jpgMariko's 30 Pirates, Tetsuya Mariko, 2004

Katsuyuki Hirano started his career in manga. Later he started making independent films using an 8mm camera. Like many other popular Japanese directors, (such as Shinya Tsukamoto, Shinobu Yaguchi, Kentaro Otani) Hirano became famous at the Pia Film Festival, where he was accepted for the three consecutive years (breaking a record). But he switched over to becoming a porn film director, because he was literally starving. Ever since, he has continued to make inventive and radical works. In one of his films, where he claimed he “was trying to make the mens’ hands stop from jerking off”, a copulating couple are filmed in places such as a sewer, a cemetery, inside a speeding van, and even at the director’s parents’ house.

By ignoring the role of sex as pornography, and focusing on the quality of the film, Hirano was able to create an original form of expression, which was different from both feature films and documentaries. Wakuwaku Furin Koza (1995) is a documentary porno film about his own marriage. On his wedding day, he starts a doomed affair with a porn actress. When she runs away, Hirano goes looking for her. Then the film jumps forward to show what happens decades later. By now the actress is a mere shadow of herself. She’s turned into skin and bones and looks like a man with make-up on. However, Hirano decides to carry her on his back and takes her to the places they used to go. Watching the memories from the past (non-fiction) and the image of the future (fiction), it hit me that they can never go back. In the end, the actress passes away at a windy dune, and there are tears in Hirano’s eyes. Although this film is 110 minutes long, more then twice the length of a normal porno, the sex scenes are less than 10 minutes, but I could not take my eyes off the screen. Now that DVDs have dominated the market, such masterpieces of porn are still waiting to be found on the bottom shelves of second hand video stores.

Later in his career, Hirano continued to experiment with his original style and directed Yumika (1997). This film was re-edited into a porn film titled Wakuwaku Furin Ryoko and was screened in public cinemas. It is a documentary about a 40-day bicycle trip with Yumika Hayashi, a legendary porn actress who died last year. This film had its own dedicated fans, and several sequels followed. In these sequels, the director chose certain locations in the wilderness and gave his male and female actors cameras so they could confess their emotions. The third sequel Shiro (White), shows Hirano going to Hokkaido all alone on his bicycle, in the snowy winter.

In Japan, the genre of Pink Film, a low budget film about 60 minutes long with 3-4 sex scenes, is more or less extinct. For adults living with children, or for hard-working Japanese men who take naps in between meetings, or even for women interested in Pink Films, but who are scared of being molested at a Pink Film theatre, it’s practically impossible to watch them to begin with. However, Shinji Imaoka continues to send his messages towards the minorities of Japanese society through Pink Films. What characterises him is his search for the line between everyday life and fiction. In his latest Pink Film Ojisan Tengoku (2006), an old man that drinks energy drinks every night in order to escape from his continuous nightmares gets his genitals bitten by a snake and he makes a night journey to a motel, which symbolises ‘hell’. This is expressed through the sign the man at the reception is holding, which bears the name Enma-Daio (the Japanese God that rules hell).

wakuwaku-furin-koza-katsuyuki-hirano.jpgWakuwaku Furin Koza, Katsuyuki Hirano, 1995

It’s easy to just laugh at this scene, but Imaoka’s true intention is to depict the hell that exists in daily lives, and our fear of it. Imaoka, however, remembers to leave a tint of hope in his films. In Kaeru-no-Uta, a story about two girls involved in prostitution, we see the main characters meeting again after five years and they start dancing, then everybody around them also starts to dance. It’s a long shot with no cuts, filmed in public without permission, and you can feel that sense of vital energy and satisfaction permeating from the screen. Imaoka attacks Japan from the very bottom of its society. He says, “That’s all I can do”. However, as a result of his skillful attacks, it is not unusual these days to see Imaoka’s films being screened at normal cinemas. In such theatres, you find women, who may have been molested at a Pink Film theatre, and also cinema fans bored of commercial Japanese films. Today, in Japan, there are over thirty thousand people committing suicide every year. I believe there are many more in need of Imaoka’s films.

Nobuhiro Yamashita is known for films such as Ramblers and Linda, Linda, Linda (2005). But the film I’m going to introduce here is Shikyu de Eiga wo Toru Onna (The Woman That Films With Her Uterus) (2006), the film he made before his latest movie The Matsugane Potshot Affair (2006). An internationally acclaimed woman director Yoshimi Nozaki, whose works are usually made either alone, or with very close friends, gets the chance to make a film with professional filmmakers, and Yamashita is asked to make the ‘making-of’ documentary. The film comically records how Yoshimi Nozaki complains, “I don’t feel the wind” and continues to re-take the shot of a scarf waving in the wind, even though every take looks exactly the same. She declares that “it can be fixed when I edit” and keeps shooting, even though the cinematographer tells her that the shots will not connect no matter how she edits.

Such ridiculous acts make the audience laugh, but as you have probably guessed, this director is a fictional character. In other words, it is a ‘mock’ documentary. Yamashita reveals this to the audience by making Takeshi Yamashita, a young actor that frequently acts in Yamashita’s films, appear as a star who just won the Japanese Academy Award for Best Actor (which of course is a lie). What I find fascinating about this film is the way he lets the audience realise that it is all fiction. The ending is a shot of Yoshimi Nozaki alone in front of the camera, even after all the cast and staff members have given up on her. It’s one of the funniest scenes, but it’s also the most melancholy, because the kind of humour Yamashita aims for goes beyond comedy, and depicts the sadness of all human beings. He demonstrates these characteristics with much more depth in this film than in his box-office (and festival) hits. Considering the fact that Yamashita will probably become popular and famous in the near future, I feel that films like this, which had zero commercial success, will be increasingly important.

Tetsuya Mariko’s Gyokutou No Manshon (The Far East Apartment) (2003) is something special. It was the first time I felt threatened by a director from a generation younger than me. The way it held the balance between its reality and fiction was like no other autobiographical documentary. The main setting is his room. His loneliness is expressed through the stop-motion photography of himself hitting a life-size doll with a baseball bat. He goes on, however, to break the conventions of personal documentaries completely. Suddenly, there is a shot of Mariko running naked in the middle of Cambodia. Climbing trees and waterfalls, he just keeps moving, and in the meantime, you hear Mariko’s mother criticising the film, saying, “It’s all blurry. I want to see a beautiful picture.”, “You’re gonna get caught!”, and “How about filming flowers?”

woman-that-films-with-her-uterus-nobuhiro-yamashita.jpgThe Woman That Films With Her Uterus, Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2006

Such words from his family depress Mariko even further. He feels the need to ‘break’ himself and pushes himself to the last resort. Fragments of his old films are cut into the new one. Finally he decides to do a bungee jump from his apartment building. Two video cameras were prepared for this scene. One Mariko holds, and the other one is locked off, filming Mariko, who’s tied up in ropes and is walking to the edge of the roof of the apartment building. Keeping the timing in mind, in other words the length of the film left in the camera, he stands, breathes, and feels himself being alive. And he jumps. Still holding his camera, he bounces back up to the roof, and stops the other camera saying, “I start the video camera myself, and stop the video camera myself. Whether the rope comes loose or not is also up to me.” As a personal documentary about self-destruction and creating a new beginning, this film is a masterpiece that should go down in history.

Mariko Sanjyuki (Mariko’s 30 Pirates) (2004), Mariko’s later film, is also a documentary. It is about 8mm films being in danger of disappearing and a student union building being in danger of closure, with a fictional plot where the antagonist’s ancestor was a pirate. Both films won the Grand Prix for the ‘Fantastic Off-Theater’ competition section at the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival, in two consecutive years. Sakichi Sato, the screenwriter of Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer (2001) and Gozu (2003), and the director of Tokyo Zombie (2006), took notice and asked him to make the last part of an omnibus film, which is scheduled to be screened in 2007. Here, Mariko tries to “buy a million yen worth of year-end-lottery”. I was involved in the editing of this film, but the last shot amazed me – I couldn’t cut any of it. It is a shot, made in one take, of his family, who have become familiar faces by now. Here he uses them to make the audience laugh, but I don’t think there’s anyone who wouldn’t be shocked by it, because he takes all the humour of the film up until that point, and turns it all around. It is an image so simple and so strong.

Documentary is just a tool for Mariko to tell stories. Instead of filming an actor pretending to be someone at the edge of things, what he does is to actually create situations, and then films them. This is why unlike many documentaries, which tend to have a closed feeling, Mariko is able to make documentaries that not only feel open, but are highly entertaining.

That’s not all. There are more. Koji Shiraishi, the director of Noroi (2005), which showed a new approach to Japanese horror; Mitsuru Meike, the director of a Pink Film Hanai Sachiko no Karei na Shogai (The Secret Life of Hanai Sachiko) (2005), which has an appearance by President Bush; Takafumi Motoki, the director of Peecan Fufu (2005), who has continued to show a unique view of youth culture, even though he works with many different genres. I do find it’s difficult to find truly gifted talents making independent films, Pink Films, porno films, and short films, but I would say there is probably about one or two out of a hundred. Still, I keep watching. That feeling of elation that comes along when you see something amazing is just unforgettably addictive. And I hope it is for you, too.

Translated by Yoshie Fukoda

Matsue Tetsuaki is the director of several films including Annyong Kimchi, as well as an actor and a writer on Japanese cinema. Read the interview with him on page 20.

From the Floating World

Where the road runs between hedges, a branch will sometimes thrust its way into the carriage. One snatches at it quickly, hoping to break it off, alas, it always slips out of one’s hand. Sometimes one’s carriage will pass over a branch of sage-brush, which then gets caught in the wheel and is lifted up at each turn, letting passengers breathe its delicious scent. – The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon