Sunday, July 21, 2019

Sabu at the New York Asian Film Festival 2019

On June 8th, right before the New York Asian Film Festival’s Sabu double feature I got a chance to sit down with the director one on one and talk to him about his career. This was my third meeting with the director who is one of most favorite filmmakers in the world. The first time was a passing encounter at the Japan Society where I confused him with an autograph request. The second time was interview I tag teamed with Nobu Hosoki of Yahoo Japan when he was here for the NYAFF screening Chasuke’s Journey. This time I had the man to myself and I could ask him anything I wanted.

What follows is pretty much what happened. Since Sabu’s English is not good we spoke through a translator, Kana Hatakeyama who is also a kick ass filmmaker in her own right.

I want to thank Stevie Wong of the New York Asian Film Festival for setting this up. I need to thank Ms Hatakeyama for her excellent translation and mostly I want to thank one of my cinematic heroes, actor, writer and director Sabu for taking the time to speak to a crazy fan boy about his body of work.

Steve: Thank you for taking the time. Please excuse me, I may have to do this from the notes because you've made too many movies.


Steve: I want to begin with the film you're in but only because I was thrilled to see you in it Martin Scorsese's SILENCE. I'm just curious how did that come about? Is Scorsese a fan? Did he come to you?

Sabu: I actually auditioned for this. The auditions were in Tokyo. And right now, I'm living in Okinawa so I couldn't make the auditions in Tokyo, but they asked me to send a video so I had my wife and children help me with the recording, and the lights, and stuff and then I sent them the video.

And he had also watched my films. He really liked MISS ZOMBIE."

Steve: Speaking of MISS ZOMBIE, you mix up genres when you when you make films MISS ZOMBIE was promoted here as a horror film, but it’s more complex than that. Other of your films also defy genre. Do you try to do films that are a certain type of film, or do you just make the film that you want?

Sabu: I'm really not thinking about genre at all when I'm making films. You know, it really depends on the cast I have, my instinct and what I want to be seeing in that moment.

Steve: When you make a film do you come in, "Oh, this is a great idea," or do you just start writing?

Sabu: It's actually really both. You know, sometimes I start with an idea and then I write it, but sometimes as I'm writing the idea comes, becomes more crystallized. But I think a lot of my earlier works were, started more with an idea like with MONDAY, DRIVE  and like, you know, like the memories coming back so I started more with the concept for a lot of the earlier works.

Steve: On the train ride in, I was looking over a list of your films again ad I was wondering if you see your films as connected? 'Cause you could almost say like,MONDAY DRIVE," and THE BLESSING BELL almost tied together. Are they tied together or are they all completely separate entities that stand on their own?

Sabu:  I think early on it was connected you know. Uh, one idea would kind of lead to another idea, but more recently there's been kind of other projects in-between. And I'm finally understanding what it is to make a film. So, my works in the future might be a little bit different in how that manifests.

Steve: When you do a film from a novel as opposed to just writing it, do you attack adapting it differently if it is something based on your novel different than somebody else's novel? Or do just look for what's gonna be the best way to do this? I'm thinking specifically of  CHASUKE'S JOURNEY which you wrote  the novel of and  KANIKOSEN which you didn't.

Sabu:  I think when I'm working based on a novel and if it's not based on my novel, I really do try to not let my sensibility and my style interfere too much. When it's based on other people's work I try to stay as true as I can to the source material.

But there's a movie coming out next year that's also based on a novel. And the people who have seen  have told me it is my movie [laughs] and it's in my style.

Steve: Your films tend to be about the journey of through life either physically or spiritually. You've got the early films like DRIVE, the more recent CHASUSKE'S JOURNEY. And then you, in the middle of these you have KANIKOSEN which is a political film.

Looking at your range of films  it's the one that doesn't fit

What made you make a film that seems so radically different than, um, everything else you've done?

Sabu: With KANIKOSEN, the novel is really popular in Japan. And it was offered to me. And , I was a bit like "Should I be the one doing this?" But I did it. However  I infused a bit too much of comedy into it and so I got into a bit of trouble with the political party. [laughs]

Steve: That's crazy. I think of it as a very political film. I don't understand why there would be a problem with that. Then again I only know the novel by reputation.

Sabu: Well, originally it's a really old story, so I just did a lot of modernizing a bit. So, for example,  the boat that was getting the crabs was a little too chic. Things like that.

Steve: Could you do a film that was a straight drama? Because all of your films have humor. That's one of the things I absolutely love about your films is that, no matter what's happening there's always a sense of, "Yes these are, this is tragedy and yes this is whatever," but you still see the humor of, of things. You know it's heartbreaking as say, "MISS ZOMBIE" is. But there's still ridiculousness to some of it. However I was wondering could you do a film with no humor?

Sabu:  I could work on a serious drama. If I come up with the right idea, maybe. The next film that's being released next year, is also based on a novel but that one is quite serious. Although you might still laugh a little.

Steve: It's the George Bernard Shaw quote, "Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh".

Sabu: Yeah. It makes me really happy that, you'd be viewing it this way, that you can cry but also laugh.

Steve: That's what I love about your films. [Looks at Notes]The one thing I don't think you've done... But could you do say, a period drama? Say a, samurai film or something deep in history.

Sabu: I would really love to. It's just hard because those tend to be more expensive. Um, but if I get theright script, yes. But I actually do have a lot of ideas back from in the day so it's something I would really like to do.

Steve: Well, cool.

Sabu: , I think maybe it might be easier and faster to write a novel. Like a historical period novel. kind of like a CHASUKE'S JOURNEY as opposed to just having a screenplay. In Japan right now I think without  it existing a different medium, it's kind of hard to get made. So that might be the path.

Steve: .How do you feel about  the way people watch films now? Do you have a preference?  Everybody's watching them on phones. Um, you know, a big screen. Would you prefer big screen? .

Sabu: Of course I would rather people see it in theaters 'cause I spent so much time on the sound and color. And so than to have people watch it on such a small screen, that's kind of well, yeah. But you know, I do think it's not bad that it's become more easy, more accessible to watch films.

Steve: Why aren't you in more of your movies?I don't think you're in many of them at all. Is it too hard to act and direct or...?

Sabu: I just...I can't focus. And so I appeared in up until my third film as a director. But since then, I haven't.

Steve:  I thought it was you were more expensive as an actor than a director.


Sabu: Yeah, I was in Silence so I'm not expensive as an actor [laughs] .

Steve: Is there like any dream projects that you have? Is there any film that you'd love to do? That you simply, you know...

Sabu: There's a project I've been wanting to make for a very long time. And I haven't quite got been able to get it made. Although, it might finally go through. But uh, it's a project that I would make in Europe.

The screenplay is all done. Um, I would cast it over there in Europe. It'd probably be in English but you know, we'd shoot somewhere like Berlin or Venice. So that's something that I'd like to make happen.

Steve: That's cool. That's really cool.

Sabu: Good.

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