One of the Montreal festival’s favourite directors talks about manga adaptations, teen films and not making a science fiction movie.
It was with a standing ovation that Takashi Miike was greeted by a very enthusiastic Montreal crowd as he introduced As the Gods Will, one of the two films he had playing at this year’s Fantasia festival, the second being science-fiction action epic Terraformars. A violent death-game fantasy, As the Gods Will sees high school children confronted with a series of traditional toys with lethal powers; if the children lose the game, their heads explode into thousands of little red balls. The survivors are then taken to a mysterious white cube that floats above the city, where another set of challenges awaits them, the aim of that cruel testing unclear. Adapted from a manga, it is another hyper-kinetic, over-active, playfully delirious film from the prolific Miike, quirkier than Battle Royale and deadlier than Alice in Wonderland.
Virginie Sélavy talked to Takashi Miike at Fantasia about manga adaptations, teen films and not making a science fiction movie.
Virginie Sélavy: Both Terraformars and As the Gods Will are adapted from manga, which is also the case with a number of your previous films. What do you particularly like about turning manga into live action films?
Takashi Miike: If I told my producer, ‘imagine that on Mars there are a lot of cockroaches and I want to make a film where people fight with cockroaches on Mars’, the producer would ask me if I’m alright in the head. Or if I said I wanted to make a film with a daruma doll playing games with children and making their heads explode, people would be asking if I’m insane. Now producers avoid all risks in film, but in the world of manga they can take more liberties with those things. There are a lot of young people competing and the editors take more risks. That’s what people making films want to do, but they can’t right now. So adapting a manga is good because we can prove that we can have a hit with it, and afterwards I can make other kinds of films, so there’s a natural continuity.
A few of your recent films are also violent stories set in high school, Crows Zero, Lesson of Evil, For Love’s Sake. Do you particularly like school settings and teenage stories?
When you make a teenage film you have to have a whole class, so you need a lot of actors aged from 15 to 20, and actually there are a lot of different kinds of actors who fit the bill. There are actors who have played since they were children, and there are also models, but we cannot have a class made up just of beautiful-looking people. So there are a lot of different types of actors that we can use and it gives us a lot of possibilities because there are many imperfections. Even if they don’t play like professional actors there’s something that can be created. Those imperfections are very interesting because it’s like making a documentary film about being young. That’s my interest in those types of films and I enjoy doing this.
The contrast between the cuteness of the toys and their deadliness is startling and very effective. Was that an aspect that attracted you to this particular story?
As a writer or a producer it is a world that you cannot make with adults. It’s not adults fighting, it’s basically children. If they were at university they would not fight like this. There is something that is very childish, that is not balanced yet, about the way they fight, and those children fight with very old traditional Japanese games that are actually quite cruel. So this is something that can be connected, and that’s why I was attracted by this.
You’ve worked in many different genres, in fact you’ve even created your own hybrids (yakuza vampire film in Yakuza Apocalypse for instance) but science fiction is not really a genre that you’ve done much work in, especially on this grand scale. What interested you in the Terraformars story?
For me, Terraformars is not a science fiction movie. For me, in a science fiction movie there is something that is logical and scientific, and the science is the key to the problem, it is what you use to solve the problem. But Terraformars is more like fantasy. And also we can imagine that it is a fight between two schools, and it’s about which school is more powerful than the other. It’s like being inside the imagination of children, and while they’re creating this fantasy we try to find out how people can survive, and what will come after. So it’s a world that is strange and mysterious, but it’s not science fiction.
Based on a real-life yakuza, Nikkatsu’s gritty 1960s crime series is about a man on the wrong side of both the law and rival gangs.
Produced in rapid succession over the course of about a year and a half, Nikkatsu’s six-part Outlaw series exists within an interesting hinterland between two distinct phases of the Japanese yakuza genre. The first and perhaps most famous entry in the run, Toshio Masuda’s Gangster VIP (1968), was released by Nikkatsu in the wake of Seijun Suzuki’s spectacularly unceremonious dismissal from the studio following their dissatisfaction with Suzuki’s Branded to Kill (1967), a move that caused great waves of discontent within the industry at the time. And the series wrapped up more than two years before the genre’s next major shot in the arm, Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles without Honour and Humanity (1972) for Toei, which spawned a series totalling five films (also released recently by Arrow Video), a second series dubbed New Battles without Honour and Humanity and numerous in-name-only spinoffs. The popularity of Fukasaku’s films can be attributed to their kinetic execution, grisly violence and the tabloid-esque sensationalism generated through them being based on a series of newspaper articles that were in turn based on the memoirs of notorious yakuza Kôzô Minô.
Despite the ‘all events and characters in this film are fictional’ disclaimer that appears at the start of Gangster VIP, and intermittently throughout the rest of the series, the Outlaw films are based on stories by Gôro Fujita, a former yakuza all too familiar with a lifestyle that’s governed by clan loyalty and debts paid with blood. The Outlaw series, then, can be seen as a missing link between the ‘Borderless Action’ and ninkyo eiga (chivalry films) that characterised the genre during the preceding decade or so, and the jitsuroko (true account, or actual record) films that came to dominate throughout the 1970s such as Battles without Honour and Humanity. Incidentally, Fujita’s writings would also go on to be adapted by Fukasaku with Graveyard of Honour (1975), another hit for Toei.
Starting in the mid-1950s, the Outlaw series stars Tetsuya Watari as Gôro Fujikawa, an on-again off-again yakuza henchman who often finds himself on the wrong side of both the law and rival clans (and sometimes even his own). But despite his best efforts to resist the pull of yakuza life, he frequently has to get his hands dirty to correct personal injustice. The first – and strongest – film of the series, Gangster VIP, sees Gôro freshly released from prison after a three-year stretch for stabbing a hitman in a bar (his former mentor Sugiyama, who now works for an opposing gang). A free man once more, he is disenfranchised with the kill or be killed mentality of his former peers and intends to shun his old ways. However, he finds his old clan in serious decline, pitted against the stronger Aokis group. He also has to frequently dissuade the curious advances of Yukiko (series co-star Chieko Matsubara), a young woman he happened to save while she was being harassed by a street gang. Yukiko becomes overly intrigued by both Goro’s criminal life and his attempts to abandon it, dutifully tidying his messy lodgings, supplied to him by his old clan. Goro manages to patch things up with Sugiyama (Kyôsuke Machida), who survived Goro’s blade but is now ailing from tuberculosis. But when gangland power plays culminate into personal tragedy, Goro feels compelled to exact gruesome revenge.
Perhaps best known in the West for the similarly-themed noirRusty Knife (1958) and the Japanese sequences of 1970’s Tora! Tora! Tora! (along with Fukasaku), Toshio Masuda perhaps wasn’t the most audacious director working for Nikkatsu. However, he imbues the series opener with enough stylistic curveballs to elevate it above much of the competition. It’s also a film with a deceptive amount of emotional pull. Its climatic scene of vengeance, hauntingly set to the crooning tones of a nightclub singer, adds a satisfying twist to what could’ve easily turned into a disappointingly standard good-guy-gets-revenge-by-killing-all-the-bad-guys sequence. And a scene where one of Goro’s assigned underlings attempts to flee the city with a newly-requited love, only to be met with merciless refusal by his profession, is a more heart-breaking moment than the genre is usually willing to permit. Watari’s character often philosophises over the wasteful and futile nature of the yakuza game, with a regular motif throughout the series being Goro trying to protect those who naively get caught up in the carnage and to get them out before it’s too late. However, his efforts are usually met with failure. He is also haunted by memories of a tough upbringing, as illustrated by the film’s monochrome opening credits sequence featuring young versions of Sugiyama and himself escaping from a detention centre for delinquents. Indeed, Watari, and by extension the film, may not be ‘cool’ in the same way as number three assassin Jô Shishido in Suzuki’s jangly Branded to Kill, or the shotgun-toting Shishido in Yasuharu Hasebe’s Massacre Gun (1967), but that’s arguably not the point of his character (a latent self-insert for Fujita, exorcising the regrets of his real-life criminal past). Having said that, Gôro does rise to the occasion in fine style when the going gets tough, often finding himself a key player in many of the series’ chaotic raids, messy knife fights and protracted back alley brawls. And his effectiveness quickly earns him the title ‘Gôro the Assassin’. These sequences are surprisingly grisly for the period and bring a sense of scrappy realism to the whole series.
The second film, Gangster VIP 2 (1968), directly continues the story, starting with Gôro and Yukiko, along with Sugiyama’s seriously unwell wife (Kayo Matsuo), trying to make a new life for themselves in the countryside. But as Yumeko’s condition worsens, Gôro has no choice but to accept a job that will take him back into the fray. Using his wits and his trusty blade, he has to survive a new series of deceptions and double crosses as turf is fought over. Keiichi Ozawa replaces Masuda in the director’s chair for Gangster VIP 2 and manages to replicate the formula of its predecessor admirably. Gôro remains an enigmatic yet sympathetic protagonist and continues to be eminently watchable, and Matsubara’s Yukiko possess a quality that subtly sets her apart from other female hangers-on. However, this film doesn’t quite gel as well, even though most of the elements from the first film are present. What is missing is Masuda’s subtle yet effective stylistic flair. Ozawa’s attempts at visual creativity, such as intercutting the film’s final knife fight with stylised cutaways of nearby students playing volleyball, are interesting additions but feel muddled, and don’t land as well as Masuda’s forays into similar territory. Gangster VIP 2 is an enjoyable sequel to be sure; it just doesn’t quite match the quality of its predecessor. As a bonus, eagle-eyed fans will notice a young Meiko Kaji (of Lady Snowblood and Female Prisoner Scorpion fame) in an early yet somewhat pivotal supporting role.
Ozawa is replaced by Mio Ezaki to helm the series’ third film, Outlaw: Heartless (1968). Written by Ezaki and Gan Yamazaki, the film doesn’t directly follow on from Gangster VIP 2 in the same way that that film had followed on from the first. Instead, Heartless seems to almost function as a soft reboot, as indicated by the change in series nomenclature and, most intriguingly, by the complete recasting of Matsubara. Indeed, the recasting of actors into different roles from one film to the next in a given series was a typical strategy for Nikkatsu at the time, and as such it becomes an increasingly more common sight as this series progresses (actors Eiji Go and Kunie Tanaka show up a couple of times in different guises for instance), but Matsubara’s changes are the most readily apparent and have the most noticeable impact (or lack thereof) on the dynamic of each film.
Heartless starts with Gôro, now working as a yakuza enforcer, trying to save a man who has been unfairly duped into owing money to the Mikimoto clan. The man, Sawada, is however slain by one of Gôro’s entourage, concerned that ‘the Assassin’ has gone weak. Gôro forcibly steals the 3 million yen that the clan had cheated from Sawada to give it to Sawada’s widow. Gôro is pursued by the gang, as well as Sawada’s irate brother (a character who goes by the name ‘Ken the Razor’), who mistakenly believes Gôro to be the murderer. Matsubara plays Keiko, the naïve daughter of a former yakuza-turned-bar owner, who Gôro crosses paths with. Like Yukiko before her, Keiko is drawn to Goro’s tough yet sympathetic demeanour, despite the disapproval of her father and from Gôro himself.
One can’t help but feel that a rinse and repeat policy is in force with Heartless, as the film is littered with recycled moments: a knife fight that takes place behind the scenes of a nightclub as a song is performed echoes the superior climax of Gangster VIP, for example. But despite their familiarity, the film’s violent clashes (arguably bloodier than its predecessors) remain bracing, sometimes thrilling. Watari remains eminently watchable, even though creative changes behind the scenes have diminished some of the shading that made his character especially interesting in the first two films (for instance, the opening framing device that sheds light on Gôro’s traumatic upbringing is absent here and will be for the rest of the series). Matsubara also excels playing a new character in a now somewhat familiar universe, and her chemistry with Watari remains as strong as before even though she has a somewhat more incidental role to play this time.
Keiichi Ozawa returns to see out the remainder of the series. Outlaw: Gôro the Assassin (1968) sees Gôro, after another year in the slammer, taking a handyman job at a hotel resort. A woman who works there (Matsubara in yet another role) is embroiled with some gangsters, with one of them slipping her regular payments as a means of trying to redeem himself for the murder of her father several years prior. As the yakuza begin to throw their weight about the hotel, Gôro has little choice but to get involved, as they are all too familiar with his now legendary status as an outlaw in relation to both the police and fellow yakuza. Meanwhile, Gôro is also trying to track down the sister of his former cellmate to pass on an important message, requiring him to search various gang-controlled nudie bars and strip clubs. As a result, Gôro the Assassin moves the series into slightly sleazier territory, anticipating the wider industry’s move toward more exploitative fare in the early 1970s.
Penultimate entry Outlaw: Black Dagger (1968) plays the most with the continuity of the series. The black dagger of the title pertains to Goro’s famed weapon of choice, which is feared and respected by Goro’s enemies in equal measure. However, this marks the first time in the series when any kind of big deal has been made about it. Towards the tail end of the film’s opening night time knife fight between Goro and some bad guys in an abandoned snowy street, a woman from Goro’s past makes an unexpected appearance. Yuri (Matsubara) has ignored Gôro’s advice to stay away and has returned, just long enough to be accidentally stabbed by one of Goro’s opponents (Sueo, the ‘young master’ and son of the leader of the Buso clan). She dies in Gôro’s arms while Sueo makes his escape. A couple of years pass (moving the series into the early 60s) and Gôro manages to find work at a quarry. However the owner, Miura, is in debt to the Buso clan. After an accident on the site, Goro is put in the care of a nurse (played again by Matsubara). Her identical resemblance to Yuri sends Gôro on a little bit of a loop, and Sueo develops something of an obsession with her as well. As the Buso clan square off against Miura, as well as some old friends who are loyal to a rival group, Gôro unsheathes the black dagger once more.
The series’ final film Outlaw: Kill! (1969) starts with a clan boss going to jail after an assassination attempt results in a tempura restaurant being wrecked during the ensuing carnage. With a power vacuum now in full force, the fraught status quo between various underbosses and rival clans begins to unravel. Goro, back in town, resists falling back into the yakuza life once more and seeks legitimate employment. Out shopping (for pants of all things), he soon crosses paths with a group harassing Yumiko (Matsubara), a department store elevator girl. Later, he looks up an old friend he first met in prison, a veteran yakuza called Moriyama, who offers him a place to stay. Little does Gôro know, however, that Yumiko is the sister of Moriyama’s wife, Minako, and that she is also staying with them. Inevitably, Goro winds up becoming the target of various movers and shakers in the underworld, despite Moriyama’s best efforts to keep him out of their affairs. As one may expect, this doesn’t end well, prompting one final killing spree – perhaps the most gruesome and spectacular of the lot.
With Ozawa’s return, the second half of the series starts to rest on its laurels somewhat. As such, Gôro the Assassin, Black Dagger and Kill! do run the risk of blurring together for the viewer. Black Dagger may be the highlight of the latter half of the series, featuring several moments of compelling drama in what is an otherwise efficient potboiler. But part of the problem with the series in general lies in the excessive repetition of plot points; every film pretty much ends the same way, and there is only so many times a formula can be applied before an immunity is built up. Kill! may be the biggest offender in this regard, as it tries to recreate several moments from the past, especially from the first film. The swift and surreptitious assassination of a key supporting character while out in public with his wife is extremely redolent of Gangster VIP’s most emotionally charged moment. And its climatic fight in the VIP and backstage areas of a nightclub uses the same audio visual technique that worked so well in that same film – having the fight unfold without diegetic sound, accompanied only by the music being played by whoever is performing on the stage of the club (except this time it’s a psychedelic rock band instead of a melancholic club singer).
Although Watari still sells the hell out of the role, Gôro’s character is also on autopilot at this point, seeing as his arc hasn’t really developed since Gangster VIP 2. Matsubara also suffers from a similar malady. Although she always remains perfectly likeable, each of her characters basically embarks upon the same arc – a somewhat naïve love for Goro that develops within 10 minutes of knowing him. This dynamic is changed up somewhat in Black Dagger, where Matsubara plays two roles, one of which states in no uncertain terms her disapproval of yakuza. But it is strange to see Goro and other characters get hung up on the fact that one character is (understandably) the spitting image of the other, whereas Matsubara’s other incarnations in other films of the series are treated as new entities with zero baggage. It bizarrely draws attention to her predictable yet paradoxically mercurial presence throughout the Outlaw series, and it’s a tactic that undermines the development of any real emotional investment in the overall continuity of the series, as an actor who is killed in one film may very well turn up as a different character in another. Any relationships that do manage to blossom, such as the budding romance between Watari and Matsubara’s characters in Gangster VIP and Gangster VIP 2, get swept under the rug by time the next film starts. However, maybe there is something deeper to be said about the series seemingly going back to the drawing board, severing emotional bonds and repeating the same mistakes – a thematic extension of the vicious circle that is Goro’s vicious life.
That’s not to say that there isn’t any more fun to be had. Ozawa’s confidence in handling the films’ action set pieces visibly grows as the series goes on, although the introduction of a stylised stabbing sound effect does detract from the realism of these sequences a little bit. This building prowess reaches critical mass in the aforementioned nightclub scene that caps Kill! and the Outlaw series. Despite it being a conceptual carbon copy of Gangster VIP’s conclusion (which had already been sort of replicated by a sequence in Heartless), it still manages to stand out as one of the most visceral and exciting moments of the series. The use of the floor with clear glass sections between the dance floor above and the VIP room below is a particularly inspired location. These horizontal windows, used by horny businessmen to sneak upskirt looks at the young clientele dancing above them, are put to creative use by Ozawa and his camera team when the blades are drawn, making for a more expertly realised juxtaposition than Ozawa’s previous attempt with the volleyball players in Gangster VIP 2. It may get bogged down by repetition, but at least the series goes out on a high.
Overall the Outlaw series, while formulaic, offers up decently entertaining yakuza thrills for the most part. The first film is definitely the highlight, perhaps even a minor classic of the genre, and while the rest of the series is not quite up to that same standard, there are still plenty of things to like in each entry. Watari is excellent throughout and is the glue that holds it all together. The series’ shifts between savage drubbing and crestfallen romanticism (the latter wonderfully underscored by a recurring, and very Enio Morricone-esque, music motif of strummed acoustic guitar and solemn trumpet) offer an interesting, if a little too consistent, variant on the genre as a whole. For fans of Japanese genre cinema from this particular period, the Outlaw series is definitely worth checking out.
Cantopop star, record producer, Hong Kong fashion designer, actor and writer: the multifaceted Juno Mak makes his directorial debut with Rigor Mortis, an elegant dramatic horror film that’s both a melancholic story of bereavement and a sombre love letter to Ricky Lau’s hopping vampire classic Mr. Vampire (1985).
Mark Player talks to Juno Mak about reuniting the cast of Mr. Vampire, working with J-horror icon Takashi Shimizu and, of course, hopping vampires.
Mark Player: You first began your career in the music industry before branching out into acting. What made you then decide to transition to directing?
Juno Mak: I never went to university; I started working when I was 18. Fortunately, I got signed under Universal Music and when I was 17, I spent a year in Japan doing all sorts of training – signing, dancing and speaking Japanese. Then I started working as a singer. But to me, I guess, throughout all these years, composing a melody, singing a song, or producing music, writing a script, being an actor, or being a director and a producer all goes back to being creative. It’s just a different way to express creativity; sometimes through music, sometimes through visuals.
Even before Rigor Mortis you seemed keen to start to writing scripts for films, for instance, Revenge: A Love Story (2010), which you also starred in.
Revenge: A Love Story was a great experience. I was very lucky because that was my first script and I wrote it without knowing whether it would be made into a film or not. There wasn’t such a genre in the market at that moment, so I just wrote it out of curiosity. Luckily we found a producer and investor who were interested in such an extreme, depressed, heavy genre film. It was done with a very low budget and we shot only for 19 days, I believe. Being able to make Revenge: A Love Story was very surprising for me, as was the film festival circuit after we finished production. We got invited to the Moscow International Film Festival. That was my first time attending a film festival and we were fortunate to get the Screenplay Award; the director, Wong Ching-po, won Best Director as well. We also attended the Puchon International Film Festival in South Korea and won another award for Best Actor. Soon I was approached by different producers. They were looking to do a sequel to Revenge: A Love Story, which was difficult for me because I’ve never really believed in doing sequels. Other producers asked me what kind of genre I would like to explore if I could write something of my own will,? That’s when I brought up the hopping vampire (jiangshi) genre, which was very popular during the 1980s but has been gone for almost 30 years. They were willing to let me explore this genre and that’s how Rigor Mortis started.
Rigor Mortis explicitly references – and even subverts – tropes from that Golden Age of jiangshi films you just mentioned, specifically the Mr. Vampire series. It’s very self-referential and very… meta, let’s say. Where did the idea for this approach come from?
At first, it’s about my childhood. I grew up in Vancouver and Mr. Vampire played a big part in my childhood. Renting it on VHS, I watched it so many times that I guess it just got stuck in my mind. I am very familiar with the hopping vampire genre and when I was approached to create Rigor Mortis, I started giving it a lot of thought again. I don’t believe Rigor Mortis is a remake of Mr. Vampire. Since the original film was so popular and great, I didn’t think it was necessary to do one. Approaching this genre, I felt that I had to have a different point of view. Mr. Vampire is more of a comical horror type of film and Rigor Mortis became a heavier, more humane type of film. But by reuniting the original cast of Mr. Vampire, I believe that there’s a certain homage. Sadly, some of the main actors from the film have passed away and others have retired.
Yes, I noticed that you pay tribute to those that have passed in the end credits (Ricky Hui and Lam Ching-ying). But you did manage to reunite actors Chin Siu-ho, Anthony Chan, Richard Ng and Billy Lau from Mr. Vampire. How did it feel to work with these childhood heroes?
It was beautiful. Again, I don’t believe in remaking such a classic, but by reuniting the cast, I felt I got a cast that was much older and more experienced. Most of them are now over 50, and seeing the wrinkles on their faces was just so beautiful. I wanted to make the film about people who have entered a certain age and are quite confused or uncertain about the future. They are broken, basically.
Chin Siu-ho plays a washed-up version of himself, and is also suicidal and mentally disturbed. What was his reaction when you first gave him the script?
We had worked together before. He played a role in Revenge: A Love Story, and that’s how I first met him. He’s always been an action figure, even in the original Mr. Vampire. So when I told him the idea for Rigor Mortis, it was a huge challenge for him because I’m not in for the action, or the stunts; I was more into the idea of him as this fictional character. He lives very happily with his family, so the whole depressive, washed-up side of him is my fictional point of view.
It took me quite a while to get him to open up about his feelings and how he could be more emotionally naked in front of the camera. He’s very healthy and very into sports, and he’s very happy with his family. So I had to make him look depressed as quickly as possible because we only had about three weeks of pre-production. I feel really sorry about it now, but we basically had to torture him to make him very depressive. We consulted three different doctors on the fastest way to break down a person and they all came up with the same solution, which was to not let him sleep. So during pre-production, we had to break up his sleep every two hours. We’d call him and have him stay on the phone for at least 10 minutes before he could get back to sleep, and then we would call him again two hours later. He also went on a diet so the whole process was definitely a torture. But it turned him into what he looks like in Rigor Mortis within three weeks. It was a cold-hearted decision, but he understood.
There’s a scene right near the start of the film when he is unpacking old film costumes that his character has kept over the years. Were they the genuine article?
Some, yes. Some I had to remake because they didn’t keep a lot of the costumes from the original Mr. Vampire. So some of them were the originals and others were the result of my own interpretation from the films I remembered seeing him in as a child. When it came to the hopping vampire, we ended up doing a whole new costume design.
Because horror films tend to be very transnational in their appeal, was it a case of trying to strike a balance between, on the one hand, making a film that was rooted in Chinese folklore and, on the other, making something that a modern international horror audience aren’t going to scoff at or find a bit silly? There’s certainly a lot less hopping in Rigor Mortis than in Mr. Vampire.
I believe it’s definitely more towards the drama side as opposed to the horror side. I didn’t make this film intentionally to be horror. I’m not really into the blood, the gore, or making you jump in your seat. There are moments like that in Rigor Mortis but those are not my main concern. My main concern is about this group of people. For example, I wanted to see how Nina Paw’s character [the widow who wants to resurrect her dead husband in the film] transforms from a really friendly person into a really evil one. Even with Anthony Chan’s character, you can see they are all about the fear of losing, or not knowing what to do about their lives. So definitely Rigor Mortis is about drama and these lost souls instead of just horror thrills.
Having said that, you co-produced the film with Japanese horror cinema veteran Takashi Shimizu, perhaps most famous for Ju-on: The Grudge (2002) and its various permutations. How did he get involved, and what did he bring to the project?
Takashi Shimizu got on board right after I finished shooting the film, so as a producer he joined us pretty late. He worked mostly on the post-production with me. I met him in Japan. I guess the reason he was interested in the project is that the hopping vampire genre plays a big part in Japanese pop culture as well, so people there recognise it too. With Ju-on, he has become a popular name in the horror genre, but deep down I believe he tends to want to work on a more character-driven story that’s heavy on drama. So when he read the script for Rigor Mortis, he saw the elements in it that are more than just thrills, blood and gore. I believe he’s always wanted to make films that are more than just horror. And of course with his experience and insights, he assisted me with things like sound design, the colour tone and the CGI.
So, I guess Rigor Mortis is a revival or sorts for jiangshi films?
The genre has been gone for a long time. It used to be a very commercial and popular genre in Hong Kong. Why did it disappear? That was my main question when I was working on the script. When we were in post-production, we got the announcement from the Venice Film Festival that the film had been selected to play there. That was a big triumph for the team because it had been a very long shoot. We had shot for 70 days, and post-production was almost a year. We never really expected it, and from there the film had a life of its own. It went from Venice to Toronto, then to Tokyo and Taiwan, and then it came back to Hong Kong for the premiere. I guess what connects this film to the audience is more than just the hopping vampire genre, it’s also the characters, the love among these older people. I guess it’s a very universal topic. Of course, at the same time it has a sort of mythical essence to it that got people’s attention.
The film is incredibly stylish and features a lot of special effects sequences. Was this daunting, considering that you were directing for the first time?
Yes… I guess it was like a mission, or a goal for me to achieve. During pre-production, that’s what I wanted, even with the minor details. We’ve seen at lot of hopping vampires from those original films and we absolutely understand the way they hop, but is there another way that we could show it? For our film, we put the hopping vampire in a water tank because I really wanted that slow-motion effect for his clothing and the way he moves. It was a very difficult moment, and because no one had ever done something like that in Hong Kong cinema before, we had to design and build our own tank. But since you can’t really hop in water, we had to use eight wires and four scuba divers to push the stuntman forward in order to present that hopping visual. That’s just one example, but there are lots of minor details like this throughout the whole film. The concern I had as a first-time director was that I wanted people to tell the difference between this film and the other hopping vampire films that came before it. I had plenty of ideas for the visuals and, fortunately, my producers were very patient with me. It was an experiment for all of us because a lot of the things that I wanted to do hadn’t been done before in the Hong Kong film industry. So I am very grateful for having such a great team.
Another element to the film’s style that shouldn’t be overlooked is the apartment block that the whole story takes place in. Was it a real location?
It was based on an actual place. We went location scouting and looked at a lot of housing compounds in Hong Kong, and that was fascinating to me. However, there were technical issues to consider and although these places looked interesting, there wouldn’t be a lot of space for the camera, lighting or the wire rigs. So we had to build our own corridor and all the apartments along it. I guess what you see in the film is about 20% real housing compound and about 80% on set.
What’s next for you? Are you looking to continue directing?
It’s kind of funny, in a sense. When travelling with the film to festivals, I was approached to do a Rigor Mortis sequel. That’s when I realised that I don’t have much more that I want to express in this genre. I want to move on to a different genre, so I have started work on a new script that has nothing to do with Rigor Mortis, or ghosts, or vampires; it’s more of an epic crime thriller. The first cut we did of Rigor Mortis was three hours long and had a lot more character development and extra scenes. I got many people asking if they could see this longer cut. At a certain point it became a pressure for me because I felt like I needed to take a break from it. I may revisit it later, after directing some other films, and maybe I’ll get a different perspective on it. The script I’m working on now is going to be a long shoot. The scale, the budget, the cast, the story, the shooting days, and the technical difficulties I think will be 10 times heavier than Rigor Mortis, so that’s my main focus at the moment. The working title for it is Sons of the Neon Night.
Taking place across six days, the 14th Nippon Connection film festival, held in various venues around Frankfurt, continues to act as the vanguard for showcasing both populist and independent Japanese cinema in Europe. As with previous years, the festival proudly presented the latest efforts from up-and-coming talents alongside some of the biggest directing names working today. With a hugely diverse selection of features, shorts, documentaries and experimental films in four main strands – ‘Cinema,’ ‘Visions,’ ‘Animation’ and ‘Retro’ – it is impossible to see everything that’s on offer. Below is an attempt to collect some thoughts on a cross-selection of films from each programme.
Fuku-chan of FukuFuku Flats (Yosuke Fujita, 2014)
The festival’s opening film, and one of the more warmly received, Fuku-chan of FukuFuku Flats is a sometimes absurd, sometimes crass, but always charming comedy from the director of Fine, Totally Fine (2008) and Quirky Guys and Gals (2011). Residing in the titular FukuFuku apartment building, Tatsuo Fukuda (Miyuki Oshima) is a kind and chubby decorator who lives on his own but always has time to solve the problems of his dysfunctional neighbours. But despite his popularity, Fukuda – or Fuku-chan – has always been unlucky in love, partly as a result of an embarrassing episode involving a conniving girl during his school days. His fears are put to the test when the girl (Asami Mizukawa), now an aspiring photographer, re-enters his life. The film is very much like its protagonist: slightly flabby but with a big, smiling heart. Its absurdities and eccentricities are regularly counteracted with moments of disarming pathos, and it also manages to make you care about its otherwise oddball cast of characters. Co-produced by Asian cinema distributor Third Window Films, expect to see Fuku-chan of FukuFuku Flats on UK release at some point.
Band of Ninja (Nagisa Oshima, 1967)
Around the time when Nagisa Oshima was directing many of what would become his seminal works of the mid-to-late 1960s – Violence at High Noon (1966), Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (1967), Death by Hanging (1968), etc. – he found the time to make Band of Ninja, an innovative motion-manga that photographs the panels of Sampei Shirato’s popular manga series of the same name, complete with dialogue, music and sound effects. It’s useless to try and fashion a pithy plot summary, as the two-hour runtime covers a lot of ground, so much so that it’s easy to lose track of what’s going on. Therein lies an issue with directly adapting from the page: an advantage of reading graphic literature, as opposed to watching it, is that you can absorb the material in your own time. But it is better to be confused than bored, and Band of Ninja certainly isn’t boring. Its slightly rickety appearance is belied by its frequently violent imagery, compounded further by Oshima’s quick cutting during these sequences, making the inanimate seem animate for the briefest instance. Band of Ninja is both thrilling and perplexing in equal measure.
Unforgiven (Lee Sang-il, 2013)
Although it is always amusing – and sometimes bemusing – to see the polarity of US/Japanese film remakes reversed (the 2009 Japanese version of 2004’s Sideways springs to mind), was there really much point in remaking Clint Eastwood’s classic revisionist Western Unforgiven (1992)? This is a question that looms large over Lee Sang-il’s version of David Webb Peoples’s story of a retired gunslinger teaming up with his old partner and a cocky, young rookie for one last murderous hurrah to assassinate a couple of cowboys who cut up a whore. Many of the narrative beats from the original film are handsomely replicated here, with only some minor deviations. The main draw, though, lies in the cultural transplantation from the American West to the dawn of the Japanese Meiji era, and the recasting of Eastwood’s grizzled shootist to Ken Watanabe’s shogunate relic. Another interesting detail is the new government’s detestation of the Ainu aborigines that hail from Hokkaido, which serves as the story’s new location. However, while finely made in its own right, this version is not quite as gripping as the original, possibly due to its overt familiarity and, for all its minor narrative additions and immaculate photography, lacks much of the shading that made Eastwood’s film so compelling the first time around.
Watch the trailer for Unforgiven (2013):
Backwater (Shinji Aoyama, 2013)
While there was a strong showing of light-hearted comedies in this year’s ‘Cinema’ section, such as Robo-G (2012), Yokohama Story (2013) and the aforementioned Fuku-chan of FukuFuku Flats, all of which are pleasantly innocuous, it was strangely refreshing to see something as prickly and dark as Backwater. Taking place in a small, dead-end riverside town in the late 1980s, the film follows 17-year-old Toma (Masaki Suda), who lives with his father (Ken Mitsuishi) and stepmother (Yukiko Shinohara). His real mother (Yuko Tanaka) has moved out but lives nearby, as she could no longer endure the violence her husband exhibits while having sex. Engaged in a sexual relationship with one of his classmates, Toma is concerned that the apple may not fall far from the tree, and that he too may have a predilection for such tendencies. Equally threatening to veer towards both dour misogyny and histrionics, Shinji Aoyama’s iconoclastic psychosexual drama is largely carried by the unsettling vibe conjured by Takahiro Imai’s graceful yet downtrodden camerawork, and a sound mix where hyperbolic insect buzzes and swells of ominous discordant noise place us firmly in an environment of sweltering oppression. Backwater is certainly an interesting work with plenty to ruminate on, but whether it can be liked is another matter.
My House (Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2012)
Shot in stark monochrome, My House looks at the meaning of ‘home’ through observing two groups of characters with two very contrasting lifestyles. The first is a collective of vagrants living in two makeshift domiciles (which can be packed down and wheeled away at leisure) in Nagoya Park, who scavenge for discarded odds and ends. The second group is a family, consisting of a mysophobic mother, a stern father and two kids, living in a reasonable modern suburb. Best known for the 20th Century Boys films, director Tsutsumi returns to his indie roots with this subtle and quietly thought-provoking work. The often enrapturing black and white cinematography not only reflects the harshness of destitute living, or by turn the sterility of a house scrubbed and cleaned within an inch of its life, but also lends the film a mythic quality that helps distance it from straight-up social realism. Tsutsumi’s observant style doesn’t hit the viewer over the head with messages, it merely suggests. My House proves to be an understated and rather endearing surprise.
Number 10 Blues/Goodbye Saigon (Norio Osada, 2013)
A Japanese/Vietnamese co-production made on location during the closing months of the Vietnam War, Number 10 Blues/Goodbye Saigon was recently unearthed by the National Film Centre of Japan. It was intended to be the directorial debut by Norio Osada, who worked as a screenwriter with Kinji Fukasaku throughout the 1970s and 80s. However, tumultuous political conditions and the production company going bankrupt left the film unfinished for nearly 40 years. It was finally completed in 2012. Number 10 Blues follows a Japanese businessman posted in Saigon (Yusuke Kawazu), who goes on the run with his Vietnamese club-singer girlfriend (Lan Thanh) and the son of an Japanese ex-soldier after accidentally killing a slightly deranged Vietnamese man who used to work for him. Cue foot chases on the mean streets of Saigon, clandestine cross-country travel and shootouts with a gang in close pursuit. Like many Asian genre films of its era, Number 10 Blues is overly macho and too earnest to be the fun and breezy potboiler it could have easily been, which is disappointing considering the effort undertaken to get the film finished after so many years.
Watch the trailer for Number 10 Blues/Goodbye Saigon:
The Tale of Iya (Tetsuichiro Tsuta, 2013)
Nearly three hours long, The Tale of Iya was tucked away in a late-night slot in the ‘Visions’ strand, a risky programming decision that strangely paid off. There was something about watching this sprawling rural epic near the witching hour that lent it a dreamlike aura; one could simply melt in the chair and let its majestic 35mm imagery wash over the senses. Set in a small farming community, the film follows a disparate cast of characters whose lives overlap and impact on one another. An old man who lives alone on the mountain rescues a baby, the sole survivor of a recent car accident, from a blizzard. Now a teenager, Haruna spends her days going to school and helping her adoptive grandfather tend to the crops. Meanwhile, a disillusioned man from Tokyo arrives seeking a more humble life. He crosses paths with a construction company that is building a tunnel through one of the mountains, as well as the group of gap-year Westerners opposing its progress. Evoking past classics such as The Ballad of Narayama (1958/1983) and Kaneto Shindo’s The Naked Island (1960), the ambitions of the film’s young director – only 28 at the time of production – are highly commendable. However, the film perhaps overshoots, indulging in a final act set in Tokyo that doesn’t quite sit with what came before, even though it leads to the kind of wonderful moment that can only be realised in cinema. But even if it does meander, The Tale of Iya is by turns grounded and magical, and bears all the hallmarks and directorial assurance of a modern, almost masterpiece. It is a deeply impressive and immersive work.
Antonym (Natsuka Kusano, 2014)
In an era where most new Japanese films seem to be clocking in at over two hours, the presence of Antonym, a sprightly 73-minuter, was all the more intriguing. Partaking in an evening writing class, Aya (Yuri Ishikaza) wins a competition that will see her 10-minute radio play broadcast on a midnight time slot, but only on the condition that she take on a co-writer to rework the script. Intending to work on the project alone, the stubborn and selfish Aya asks a work colleague, Sachiko (Asami Shibuya), to pretend to be her co-writer and sit in on meetings with her teacher. However, Sachiko has a natural knack for writing and wants to get properly involved. What follows is a delicate drama on an intimate scale about two characters of opposing dispositions, but each lonely in their own way. Aya is insular, whereas Sachiko yearns for connection, going out of her way to be friends with the former who, frustratingly, does not wish to reciprocate. But as their relationship develops, it begins to unwittingly mirror the themes of Aya’s play, climaxing in the unlikely pair performing the re-developed script in a recording studio. Antonym is a decent little debut from director Natsuka Kusano, although, unfortunately, perhaps too modest and esoteric to find a broader audience.
Patema Inverted (Yasuhiro Yoshiura, 2013)
With Studio Ghibli curiously absent from the animé line-up (especially strange considering the recent releases of Hayao Miyazaki’s supposed final film The Wind Rises and The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Isao Takahata’s less publicised return after a 14-year directing absence), the role of flag bearer for the ‘Animation’ strand arguably fell to Patema Inverted. A mind-boggling adventure set in two dystopian worlds that have opposing gravitational directions, the film follows teenager Patema (Yukiyo Fujii), who lives in an underground city. While out exploring in the ‘danger zone’, she falls down a vertical shaft and soon discovers an outside world where everything appears to be upside down. She befriends Age (Nobuhiko Okamoto), a fellow teen who is confused about the totalitarian state in which he lives, despite the educational propaganda that claims those who are ‘inverted’, like Patema, are sinners who need to be persecuted. While the narrative endeavours to keep us guessing over which ‘world’ is in fact the right way up, it also ensures that we never lose sight of the budding, gravity-crossed relationship at its centre, which gives the film a beating heart and plenty of emotional weight. Maybe a Studio Ghibli title wasn’t needed this year after all.
Watch the trailer for Patema Inverted:
Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Koreeda, 2013)
Winner of the Grand Jury prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, and the closing film of this festival, Like Father, Like Son poses an impossible dilemma no parent would want to experience. When two couples from different backgrounds find out that their six-year-old sons were accidentally swapped at birth, they must decide whether to swap them back or remain as they are. As with Nobody Knows (2004) and I Wish (2011), Koreeda continues to riff on the theme of broken families, but in doing so further solidifies his reputation as a world-class filmmaker, often showered with daunting comparisons to Yasujiro Ozu. But maybe these aren’t so daunting anymore as, with Ozu’s best work, Like Father, Like Son is humble, humanistic, deeply edifying and executed with such gentle precision you are barely aware of the mechanics at work in making you feel engrossed and moved. Certainly one of the strongest Japanese films of recent years, and seeing as it’s not long been released on DVD and Blu-ray, there really isn’t any excuse to miss it.
Short Peace (Shuhei Morita, Katsuhiro Otomo, Hiroaki Ando, Hajime Katoki, 2013)
An omnibus feature composed of four short animated stories, Short Peace is a mixed bag of minor successes and near misses, which has enjoyed exposure due to the involvement of Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo: he wrote and directed the second segment, ‘Combustible’, and his manga served as the basis for the fourth, ‘A Farewell to Weapons’. The format of equally allotted segments is problematic. The first segment, ‘Possessions’, feels a little too long, whereas the aforementioned ‘Combustible’, a story about firefighting in feudal Japan, feels too short and ends just as it starts to get interesting. Segment three, ‘Gambo’, where a famed and mythical white bear fights a hulking red demon, and urban combat set piece ‘A Farewell to Weapons’ are better paced, although the latter is tonally mismatched with the first three due to its futuristic setting. Despite being assembled by some of the industry’s leading figures, Short Peace, while intermittently worthwhile, doesn’t quite coalesce as a whole.
However, special mention needs to be given to one of the screenings’ supporting shorts. The Portrait Studio(Takashi Nakamura, 2013), a beautifully executed story of a late 19th-century portrait photographer who tries to coax a smile out of a particularly stubborn customer over the course of several decades, was of a similar length to the individual segments of Short Peace and roundly upstaged them all with its pictorial animation style, nostalgic air and delightful piano score.
Watch the trailer for The Portrait Studio
The Ko Nakahira Retrospective
This year’s ‘Nippon Retro’ strand honoured the work of the little known Ko Nakahira, an early innovator of the 1960s Japanese New Wave who laid the groundwork for the likes of Shôhei Imamura, Nagisa Ôshima and Seijun Suzuki. Nine films were selected to be shown at the German Film Museum, which served to highlight the variety of styles, genres and production circumstances that Nakahira worked within while at Nikkatsu throughout the 1950s and 60s.
Nakahira often got into hot water with studio executives over the quick pacing of many of his films, concerned that audiences acclimatised to the more tranquil and metered styles of Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse et al., would have difficulty keeping up. He also got into trouble with the censors over his frank handling of sexual issues. For instance, That Guy and I (1961) is a vibrant yet bawdy school comedy focusing on the new youth culture that rocked the archipelago at the turn of the decade. Characters openly discuss sexual desires with one another as well as bodily functions like menstruation. But the film also isn’t afraid to touch on serious political issues, such as the student riots and the rape of one of the female characters. Only on Mondays (1964) is about good-time girl Yuka (Mariko Kaga), whose life consists of little more than exploring her sexual prowess and her hold over several men, all the while eschewing genuine intimacy as the result of a psychosexually damaging childhood trauma. Stylistically, the film seems to be a reaction to the French Nouvelle Vague, which in turn was partly influenced by Nakahira’s work – reportedly, François Truffaut was particularly receptive to what would be Nakahira’s calling card, Crazed Fruit (1956).
The retrospective also looked at the other side of Nakahira’s career: his less personal, director-for-hire output. A highlight of this was most certainly The Black Gambler – Devil’s Left Hand (1965), the last in a six-part Black Gambler series of films starring Akira Kobayashi as a superstar gambler, who beds women effortlessly and often gets caught up in plots of international intrigue. A professor from the fictional nation of Pandora concocts a scheme to take over Japan’s gambling industry, and plans to build an army (it is revealed that the nation’s army consists of only 56 soldiers) with the revenue. For reasons that are never quite explained, the professor must defeat Koji, the Black Gambler, in order to fulfil his plans. He enlists the help of his three brightest students at Pandora’s University of Gambling: an old woman, a blind man and a precocious child, who each take Koji on. Tongue firmly in cheek, what follows is akin to a Roger Moore-era Bond film (although this was produced before Moore took over from Sean Connery), a franchise that the Gambler series emulated in a number of ways to capitalise on its popularity.
The Koji Yamamura Retrospective
The ‘Animation’ strand also had its own retrospective of sorts this year, a screening that collected several short works by independent animator and teacher Koji Yamamura. Yamamura attended the event to present 11 of his films. Standout pieces included the Oscar-nominated Mt. Head (2002), a modern interpretation of a traditional rakugo story of a man sprouting a small cherry tree from his head after eating cherry seeds; The Old Crocodile (2005), an amusingly macabre tale based on Histoire du vieux crocodile (1923) by Léopld Chauveau; and Muybridge’s Strings (2011), an exquisitely crafted visualisation of Eadweard Muybridge’s 1878 experiments of consecutively photographing each phase of a galloping horse’s movements. Filled with wit, intelligence and unusual ideas, Yamamura’s work shows a different side of animé, proving that there’s more to it than giant mechas, busty schoolgirls and fan service.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews