Thursday, August 1, 2019

Shinya Tsukamoto the Japan Cuts 2019 Interview

On July 24th I got to interview the great Shinya Tsukamoto at the Japan Society in New York City as part of the Japan Cuts Festival. Tsukamoto was there to receive the fest’s Cut Above Award as which is given to filmmakers who have changed the medium.

Shinya Tsukamoto has changed the medium of film and popular culture forever. Beginning with his TETSUO THE IRON MAN Tsukamoto altered how people saw film, storytelling and reality. He is one of the gods of the Japanese Punk film movement which bled out in every direction. Anyone who has seen any of his films has been altered by the experience. Having spoken to countless film fans and filmmakers over the years almost always one or more of his films get mentioned as being an influence as to why they love film or why they make movies.

I was changed. Back in the day of VHS tapes when Tsukamoto's first films were new I had to use services like the late great Video Search of Miami to get films from around the world I could never see otherwise. As his films post TETSUO were released I had to pick them up as duped copies with fan supplied subtitles. I then bent minds of friends by either loaning out the tapes or running copies for  them.

Despite the fact that Tsukamoto makes in your face gut punch films he appears to be a quiet funny and extremely thoughtful gentleman. When I met him I was slightly taken aback since the man and his films have played a major part in my life over the last three decades so I was expecting a large imposing figure and instead I was greeted with a really cool guy I just wanted to hang out with and talk about films. I mention the desire to talk films with him because in talking with him before and after the formal interview I realized that he has a large and unending of film of all sorts

What follows is most of our half hour together. I’ve removed some kibitzing at the start, and some discussion that wandered or didn't work out of context. I also removed the moment in the middle when I became a tongue tied fanboy mid-question when it hit me I was in the room with a guy who had seismically changed film and popular culture. (It was a moment that produced a laugh from everyone I the room, but it reads really badly)

I want to thank Christian Barclay at the Japan Society for setting this up; Aiko Masubuchi for translating and of course Shinya Tsukamoto for taking the time to talk to a tongue tied fan.

One last quick note about the start- I begin by asking Mr. Tsukamoto about Godzilla. I know it’s a weird place to start but in doing research for the interview I found out that most of the articles, interviews and press material regarding him and his films mention his small role in SHIN GODZILLA and I was I was curious why…

Shinya Tsukamoto's KILLING

Steve: Forgive me if I jump all over the place. You've made way too many movies.

Shinya: Ah. [laughs]

Steve: I know this is a weird place to start a weird thing but I've seen it in a couple of things and I just was curious since in the press stuff for Japan society  some interviews for "Silence," they were mentioning you were in "Godzilla." I find it odd since you've made so many films over the years that to see it mentioned over and over again, and in the Japan Society material I was wondering if it was in your official bio.

Shinya:  I believe it's because its because Godzilla is a well known film. So I think somebody decided include it in the bio.

Steve: I had read that  you had just finished FIRES ON THE PLAIN  when you  went to do Silence. Both films are very spiritual and both films seem to have similar themes. Do you see them reflected in each other? Could your moving from one to the next have been some form of spiritual journey?

Shinya: At the beginning, I didn't really realize that there was much similarity between the two.
But while I was working on on SILENCE, I realized very clearly that there is a theme that they both share. First of all because it was a film by Scorsese. And also because it was about, it was on SILENCE, I wanted to make sure I wanted to, um, get deep inside the world and really wanted to give it my all.

In terms of the themes that I thought was the same between the two is the fact that in any period there's always the authoritative figures or power in place, and then the people who end up having a hard time because of them are the civilians and the regular people.

FIRES ON THE PLAIN it's about authority figures fighting each other. But then the people who have a hard time because of that are the regular people.

In SILENCE it's through trade that Christianity enters Japan. And even though the priests themselves have perhaps some have good intentions, it's through the convenience of trade that they end up going into Japan.

And through them regular people start believing in Christianity very strongly. But then there's a change in power that happens and be-...And suddenly, the authorities decide that the Christianity is a nuisance.

But it's not so easy for these civilians to then decide to change faith. But in order to force them to change this, they're executed. And these are all civilians and I realized that there is this theme of unfairness that unchanging that continues throughout the periods.

Steve: You've, you've made some films that you've written. You've made some films that you've adapted. Do you take any special steps when you adapt something for the screen? Or are you merciless with the story to get what you want or do you, do you feel any need to be faithful to what you're adapting?

Shinya: I have done adaptations. HIRUKO THE GOBLIN as well as the work of Rampo. And I love all of the originals very much. Um, but in making these, I felt that it was best for me to bring these originals into a world that I understood. And so I was sort of brought these originals into my world in a way.

However, regarding FIRES ON THE PLAIN I was trying to be as close to the original as possible because I thought the original was amazing. And I wanted to, instead to go into the world of the original and experience it for myself.

In terms of anything that I changed to make it a more filmic adaptation, it was...those changes were done with my consideration of thinking that in terms of adapting it for a film, maybe this is the right way to do it.

Steve: Does being an actor make you a better director?

Shinya: Whenever I a asked to be an actor in somebody else's film a different director, um, I am often working with directors that I admire myself. So I want to be a sort of a tool for that director. Um, so oftentimes,  I'm coming from a fan perspective so, and I work with directors who have their own style.

So in terms of influence, I don't think there's necessarily, uh, a big influence in...on my part from the directors themselves. However, because I know what it's like to be on set as an actor, I do feel that I understand what it's like to be an actor on set. Um, and so in that sense I find, uh, a value in that.

Steve: I know you've worked with Scorsese, Takashi Miike and others but I was wondering who are the great directors that you would like to still, still like to work with?

Shinya: I'm a little bit embarrassed to say this, but it's Clint Eastwood. I really wonder what it's like to be on set in his films. I know he just starts shooting and wondering what kind of nervous energy I can feel and how he does it. I would really love to see how that's all done.

Steve: That's cool. I absolutely love that you're a fan, that you're a fan of like directors, as well as, a filmmaker.  I love that you have this, attitude that you love film yourself.

Shinya: . Thank you very much.

Steve:  You've been making films for for almost 40 years. Your early films were gut-punch films. Your films still are, but do you still find that you feel that you have to rattle the cages the way you did when you were making you know TETSUO, HIRUKO, TOKYO FIST,  and BULLET BALLET...Do you still want to challenge everyone?

Shinya: That's sort of a difficult questions to, question to answer. But I do really want to make different kinds of films. I don't want to say just because of my age I don't want to make films with a lot of punch to it. But, and naturally even when I try to make different kinds of films, I end up making more of a gutsy film.  I do need to think about my age but at the same time I want to continue to approach different kinds of films.

To see Shinya Tsukamoto receive The Cut Above Award at Japan Cuts and the video of  the Q&A that followed the screening of  KILLING go here.

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