Recently, the Weekly talked with two Japanese directors who are helping to make their native film industry one of the most exciting in world cinema. There’s a new Japanese new wave, and it’s beginning to break here, which is why, along with these interviews, we’ve also provided a brief guide to some of the coolest players in this hot scene. —Manohla Dargis
Kitano Photo by Larry Hirshowitz
By Chuck Stephens
“Actually,” says director Takeshi Kitano, swatting at a swirl of smoke from the unbroken chain of Cabin cigarettes he’s been puffing all morning, “I’ve always hated yakuza movies.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Kitano — the former standup comic, reigning Japanese supercelebrity and internationally acclaimed filmmaker whose ninth and latest feature, Brother, began its U.S. run last week — must be joking. After all, this master of the cinematic sucker punch has at least two reputations to maintain: one as a notoriously mirthful conversationalist, the other as a filmmaker whose philosophical crime movies have typically centered around unhinged tough guys and wacko yakuza renegades, many of whom, with no small slathering of relish, have been played by the director himself. “Even the so-called ‘good’ yakuza movies,” continues the as-yet-unsmiling Kitano through a translator, “like those by Kinji Fukusaku, are always mouthing platitudes about honor and integrity, but they never deal with the inner turmoil, or the actual mentality, of the individual yakuza. They’re all about glamorizing these guys, and I hate that the most.”
Kitano may have essayed oafish, sadistic and occasionally adorable thugs before (in films like Boiling Point and Sonatine), but in the light of Brother — a film as filled with sacrificial finger severings and nihilist acts of seppuku as any of the classic yakuza epics made by Toho Studios in the 1960s or ’70s — those earlier misfits now seem less like genre-bound puzzle pieces than hapless henchmen cast adrift in the “normal,” if amply chaotic, world of children, angels and clowns. But while Brother may be the first (more or less) traditional genre flick Kitano’s made, it’s also something quite new. For one thing, it’s his first international co-production, an Office Kitano project made in cooperation with Recorded Picture Co., the London-based company run by Jeremy Thomas (whose formidable producing credits include Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, in which Kitano made his impressive screen-acting debut), and L.A.-based co-producer Ann Carli. Most of the film was shot on locations that Kitano might be gazing down upon from his West Hollywood hotel balcony as he speaks: a refurbished loft somewhere downtown, a lonely stretch of sidewalk along the Wilshire corridor, a sedate avenue nestled in the Pacific Palisades.
“I knew that eventually I would make a traditional yakuza film,” Kitano admits, the beginnings of a grin at last dawning around his eyes, “but you might be surprised at the real reason I decided to make such a traditional genre film. It’s because, whenever I go to film festivals, I’m always overwhelmed by the number of foreign journalists who want to ask me questions about yakuza movies.” â
Brother’s not just a concession to his admirers, of course; for Kitano, who imported all the key members of his Japanese entourage (cinematographer Katsumi Yanagijima, composer Joe Hisaishi, actors Susumu Terajima and Ryo Ishibashi) for the shoot, it was also an opportunity to try out new faces. One of Brother’s culture-buff pleasures is watching veteran character actor James Shigeta, familiar from his countless guest spots on Quinn Martin–produced TV cop shows in the ’70s, interacting with this modern master and his crew, but it’s the occasionally histrionic “brother” Omar Epps — as Denny, the street-corner drug hustler who becomes both partner and foil for Kitano’s implacably stone-faced character, an exiled yakuza underboss named Yamamoto — who lends the film its American frisson and enforces the film’s titular triple-entendre.
Kitano’s taken critical heat in the past for his use of black faces in his films; in Boiling Point, a color-coded sight gag involving the blue ocean, a pink baseball and a black actress struck some as cartoonish and demeaning. But the director’s ready for any similarly minded criticism Brother (which is also imbued with some cartoonish and demeaning comedy — toward every ethnicity) might inspire. “My older brother used to work as a translator at an American military base,” the director recalls. “Once in a while, he’d bring along his colleagues from work, and they’d often be black guys. Some people from my generation may have thought of those images of black people in Japanese movies as being inherently comical, but my personal experience was exactly the opposite. I’ve always felt more familiar with black guys than white guys, probably because they all seemed easier to get along with, and so much friendlier to me when I was a kid.”
And yet, despite the warm-hearted spirit of international relations that seems to cling to Brother, there remains something vaguely antagonistic, and even vaguely anti-American about it as well. Yamamoto was the name of Japan’s notoriously vicious World War II admiral, and a sense of kamikaze ruthlessness becomes increasingly pervasive as the film’s staggering body count rises. Is it possible that, in the long shadow of Michael Bay, Brother might actually be the director’s attempt to re-stage Pearl Harbor? “Yes,” Kitano beams, returning at last to the familiar cutup of yore. “Just like the Japanese did in World War II, I’m trying to assault American culture with this movie — and I’m failing miserably!”
Kurosawa Photo by Debra Dipaolo
By Paul Malcolm
There’s no way to shake it — the nervous fear that wells up when going to interview Kiyoshi Kurosawa. The Japanese filmmaker is, after all, the writer and director of a number of unnerving genre movies, including Cure (opening this Friday), a truly terrifying horror film in which a Svengali-like serial killer induces people to murder through the disquieting cadences of what sounds like small talk. “Tell me about yourself,” the young killer says to a schoolteacher who, the next time we see him, is leaping out a second-story window after butchering his wife.
In person, with his own wife and a translator at his side, Kurosawa comes off as thoughtful as Cure’s highly intelligent killer, but without the malice. He has a very calming smile. “I consider myself to be an extremely average and ordinary middle-aged person,” he says. He just happens to make deeply disturbing, enigmatic films about ordinary people plunged into a world where rational rules no longer apply.
Known in Japan for the low-budget horror and yakuza films he has churned out since the early 1980s for the country’s voracious straight-to-video market, Kurosawa exploded onto the international stage in 1997 when Cure screened at Toronto and Rotterdam film festivals to sweeping acclaim. Always a prolific filmmaker (as much out of necessity as temperament), he followed Cure’s critical success with three films in 1999 — License To Live, Charisma and Barren Illusions — which went on to premiere, respectively, at the Berlin, Cannes and Venice festivals that same year. He has since been acknowledged as a versatile genre master and a central figure in a Japanese new new wave that includes directors such as Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo), Sogo Ishii (Angel Dust) and Takashi Miike (Audition) (see sidebar).
Despite the doors that Cure has opened for the filmmaker, including European distribution for his subsequent works, Kurosawa is surprised and “a little apprehensive” that it will be the first of his 22 films to be theatrically released in the United States. To understand why is to know what makes Cure such a frightening and thought-provoking film. Cure emerged, he says, after he had reached the limits of genre. Before it, his approach to the yakuza films was to closely mimic the conventions of the American gangster film. A strategy to meet the exigencies of the market, it was also Kurosawa’s way of paying homage to his central influences: Sam Peckinpah, Robert Aldrich and Don Siegel. â
This, at least, is the triumvirate of auteurs that Kurosawa has long cited since his reputation went global — a mantra he recently felt the need to amend. “I’m getting sick of saying those names,” he says, “so I’d like to add a new one, John Cassavetes.” From Cassavetes, he says, “I learned profoundly that when you make a film, you should always start with your immediate surroundings.” It’s a lesson that echoes in the concerns he wrestled with before making Cure. “I’ve always held the conventions of [American] genre films quite dear,” he says. “The problem is that my movies star Japanese people, and they are shot in Tokyo.”
His solution was to strip away Cure’s generic elements until what remain (a rooftop chase here, a confrontation between partners there) are only beats to mark narrative progression. In the spaces between these generic signposts, Kurosawa pushes the film deep into elliptical, metaphysical territory where terror flows from the recognition of the fragile hold we have on our own darkest impulses. For Kurosawa, it was a breakthrough. “I became conscious for the first time,” he says, “that I was making a Japanese film set in Japan, with Japanese-like concerns.”
In that sense, Kurosawa’s casting of Koji Yakusho (Tampopo, Shall We Dance?, Eureka) as Cure’s haunted detective is as significant as the film’s vaporized structure. A popular television and film star, Yakusho holds a special place in Kurosawa’s work (the actor also stars in Charisma, License To Live and Seance). For starters, director and actor are the same age. “That’s why I’ve always been especially aware of him,” says Kurosawa. “Yakusho, aside from being a star, is a completely average guy. So when I cast him, really it’s like casting a part of me. The challenge and the thrill is having him start out as an average man and seeing how far he will have walked away from that — toward being a monster or a devil — by the end of the film.”
Kurosawa himself has come a long way since Cure, which is what makes him so wary about its U.S. theatrical debut. “With Cure and beyond I intentionally chose to diverge from the Hollywood approach to films,” he says. “So I always thought a U.S. release [for Cure] would be impossible.” Ironically, as Kurosawa has walked away from the art of imitation, his influences have become all the more resonant even as his films have become more intensely personal. Which is, of course, the essence of great genre filmmaking in any country.
For the review of Cure, turn to Film Calendar.
As teeming with creativity as it was during the 1960s new wave, contemporary Japanese cinema continues its decadeslong status as a garden of earthly and deliciously ungodly delights. Unlike the old days, Japanese filmmakers today know they’re not just making films for Japanese audiences anymore, and that — thanks largely to the international success of Takeshi Kitano — they won’t have to wait 20 years for the rest of the world to catch up. Here’s our at-a-glance (and far from exhaustive) checklist of five to watch:
Takashi Miike. Miike (pronounced “Mee-kay”) churns out gleefully sadistic crime films at a rate of two or three a year. San Francisco–based Viz Communications opened Dead or Alive in New York last month, with additional engagements and a DVD release to follow. In this cop-vs.-yakuza caper, the world’s longest line of cocaine leads to a stripper drowning in her own feces and a pair of bad guys who make Godzilla’s wrath look like the splashings of a tadpole. Audition (which opens in New York in August, sans distributor) — a thoughtful film about courting, never mind the piano wire sawing through someone’s leg — is Miike’s best.
Rokuro Mochizuki. Unknown to all but the most thorough-minded American film-fest honchos, Mochizuki is philosopher king of the contemporary yakuza film, Kitano notwithstanding. Onibi: The Fire Within (1997) is perhaps the most beautiful portrait of hit-man ennui ever made, not to mention a furious renunciation of yakuza glamour, while Gedo: The Outer Way (1999) fuses sex, politics and religion in ways that even Imamura never imagined.
Junji Sakamoto. A veteran of Japan’s independent-film scene, Sakamoto has 10 films to his credit, but it’s his masterpiece, Face (2000), that finally put him on the map. Both a tenderhearted portrait of a truck-shaped seamstress named Masako — victim, murderess, lummox, goddess — and a tough-minded survey of the geographical and emotional limits of Japanese life, Face is some sort of miracle: funny, devastating and uplifting in its ferocious desperation to claw away society’s disfiguring masks.
Sogo Ishii. Ishii’s been making films since the ’70s, but his double return to form last year — with the big-budgeted epic Gojoe and the frenetic garage flick Electric Dragon 80,000 Volts — hot-wired this ingenious trashologist’s career. A tumult of samurai scruff and Buddhist babble, Gojoe’s 12th-century storyline has something to do with clan warfare and a haunted bridge; half as long but twice as loud, Electric Dragon’s battle between opposing guitar-osaurs suggests that sticking your head inside an overdriven amplifier is as good a way as any to glimpse the face of God.
Kaze Shindo. Granddaughter of veteran director Kaneto Shindo, Kaze Shindo’s made but a single feature so far: Love/Juice, a fish-out-of-water love story between two late-teenage girls. In a cinema whose creative forces have long remained almost entirely estrogen-free, Shindo’s is a breath of fresh air, even as her black-hearted humor suggests a promising affinity with the supersatirist Roman Polanski. A food film for those who found Tampopo closer to an emetic than an appetizer, the cannibalistically inclined Love/Juice gives new meaning to the notion of eating your lover out.