The Rise and Fall of Rokuro Mochizuki
- 11 May 2005
For much of the 1990s, Rokuro Mochizuki was at the forefront of Japanese cinema, one of the leading lights of an emerging new generation tirelessly rejuvenating the moribund industry. Alongside Takeshi Kitano, Takashi Miike, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Takashi Ishii, he was one of those who reinvented genre cinema from within, largely thanks to the abundance of such projects offered by the V-cinema industry.
During this decade Mochizuki gave us a rich handful of vivacious and inventive films that have come to be emblematic of the period: the self-reflective meta-porno Skinless Night (1990), the chilling midlife gangland crisis tale Another Lonely Hitman (1995), the jawdropping metaphysical cop story The Outer Way (1998) and one of the downright best films of the 1990s, The Fire Within (1997). Yet, it has taken the rest of the world almost ten years to properly get wind of him. While his career back home has been flailing since the dawn of the new millennium, outside Japan Rokuro Mochizuki is only just taking off, thanks to a wave of DVD releases of his best work.
A child of the post-war reconstruction, like all those that would go on to form the new cinema vanguard in the 1990s Mochizuki was born into a rapidly modernising world. Though growing up in the relative prosperity and comfort of post-Olympic, post-Shinkansen Japan, his generation witnessed the rise of counterculture, student protest over U.S.-Japanese relations and the urban guerrillas of the Red Army factions, all while still at an impressionable age. The 1960s and 70s were tumultuous years, rife with a rebellion that must have rubbed off on the teenagers that were too young to join in but old enough to be aware of what was going on. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that Mochizuki and his peers would go on to make a kind of cinema that was sceptical, probing and critical, of both the medium of film and tendencies in society at large.
Mochizuki, for his part, was strongly inspired by the films of the era, in particular the work of two revered studio rebels, Kinji Fukasaku and Nikkatsu Roman Porno luminary Tatsumi Kumashiro. After dropping out of Keio University in his freshman year, he enrolled in the film school of Tokyo's bastion for experimental cinema, Image Forum. Although he claimed to have felt little affinity for the kind of avant-garde work the institute was promoting, his later work shows an acute awareness of the medium of film and of the meaning of the recorded image, an awareness that is likely to have been at least partly inspired by his student years. Graduating in the early 1980s, Mochizuki initially tried to find work at Nikkatsu, virtually the only major studio that was still producing films in-house and hiring the crews to make them. Nikkatsu's output had been entirely devoted to the aforementioned Roman Porno for over a decade, and it was only there or in the independent pink film sector that a newcomer fresh out of film school could hope to find employment in those days.
Nikkatsu soon ran out of steam as well and much of its staff found itself out in the streets mere months after Mochizuki joined. His writing having drawn the attention of producer/director Genji Nakamura - who would later go on to collaborate with Ryuichi Hiroki and Hitoshi Ishikawa under the collective pseudonym of Go Ijuin - Mochizuki joined Nakamura after the latter formed his own company. After two years of working as a scriptwriter and assistant director of Nakamura's low budget pink productions (including Beautiful Mystery: The Legend of Big Horn, a gay-themed satire of Yukio Mishima's private army of handsome young men in uniform) he made his own directing debut in 1985 with Honban Video: Hagu [tr: Real video: strip]. He made a further two films for Nakamura before leaving the nest to start his own enterprise. Following the demands of the market, Mochizuki's E-Staff Union went on to produce several hundred hardcore porn tapes during the second half of the 1980s.
Mochizuki has never shown the slightest discomfort over his past in the porn industry. If the only way for a person to be able to make a living in film was through skinflicks, he was happy to take that route. The attitude demonstrates the kind of pragmatism that would characterise his entire career. Particularly in Japan in the 1980s and 90s, where low budget genre cinema afforded the only way for many aspiring filmmakers to climb into the coveted director's chair, a healthy dose of pragmatism was required baggage for anyone venturing into the world of cinema. The filmographies of many of Mochizuki's contemporaries bare this out. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Takashi Ishii, Shinji Aoyama and Hideo Nakata were all regulars of both the pink film and V-cinema yakuza genres that also dominate Mochizuki's filmography.
For Mochizuki, however, the interest of portraying human sexuality goes deeper. His films nearly always, regardless of their genre, demonstrate a fascination with what goes on below the waist and in what his characters' sexual habits say about their personalities and their relationships. He is an equal-opportunities director in this regard; instead of the obligatory misogyny of so many yakuza films aimed at the middle-aged male demographic, Mochizuki's films give women as much room to enjoy themselves, to dominate and to make decisions as men. His 1995 gangster movie Dirty Guy contains a scene of a prostitute alternately giving head to two male clients, which ends with the two men simultaneously going down on her, while she vocally expresses the kind of unmistakable enjoyment that is so typical for Mochizuki's women: nobody moans quite a like an actress in a Rokuro Mochizuki film.
Despite his ready acceptance of it, Mochizuki had no intention of eternally remaining part of the porn business, as his first 'straight' film Skinless Night attests. Made in 1990 through E-Staff Union, and named after a brand of condoms, it was the semi-autobiographical tale of a director of porn tapes who is reminded of the ambitions he once had when he unearths his unfinished student film. He leaves the moaning and groaning behind and takes refuge at a hot spring, where he soaks in the same bathtub that inspired Nobel prize winning Yasunari Kawabata to write The Izu Dancer, hoping to channel all his buried motivation into his great, straight feature.
Arriving as one of a slew of remarkable debut films by neophyte directors (the previous year had seen the arrival of Takeshi Kitano with Violent Cop, Shinya Tsukamoto with Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Junji Sakamoto with Knock-Out and Masayuki Suo with Fancy Dance among others), Skinless Night became one of the signature films of the 'new new wave' of Japanese film and Mochizuki quickly found himself the subject of industry attention. Japan Home Video, one of the many new companies that sprang up during the home video boom of the late 1980s, picked up distribution rights for the film and the director found in V-cinema an appreciative new stomping ground. He further established his credentials as a dependable director-for-hire with a personal touch by directing The Wicked Reporter for the newly resurrected Daiei studio in 1993, the success of which led to two sequels in 1994 and 1996.
The Wicked Reporter series revolves around the misadventures of a layabout newspaper scribe, a horse track correspondent for whom the benefits of the job overshadow his duties; he boozes, gambles and sleeps around, spending more time with the reprobates that gravitate around the races than with his colleagues or his girlfriend. The films form a vivid portrayal of life on the fringes of bubble-era Japan, showing a Fukasaku-like affinity for those that have fallen by the wayside of the national quest for ever more financial gain. Featuring frank sex scenes and a world-weary, middle-aged protagonist (played by Eiji Okuda, who would become a habitual presence in the director's films), The Wicked Reporter established many of the hallmarks of Mochizuki's work for the remainder of the decade.
The films also introduced Mochizuki to what would become his new signature genre: the crime and yakuza film. The year 1995 would be a turning point, with Mochizuki delivering what remains one of his most accomplished films, Another Lonely Hitman. A variation on the oft-told tale of the ex-con who wishes to go straight against the odds, the film was boosted by an unusually level-headed approach for the genre, a sensational, intense central performance by Ryo Ishibashi as the obstinate hitman of the title, and a script that emphasised character over action. It also features a slew of unforgettable scenes, including the opening assassination under the influence of heroin, a harrowing, protracted sequence of Ishibashi's protagonist Tachibana trying to wean his girlfriend off her drug habit cold-turkey style, and a bizarre climactic head-to-head between the gang's top brass and Tachibana armed only with a video camera.
Another Lonely Hitman marked Mochizuki's first collaboration with Yukio Yamanouchi, a writer of novels about the Osaka yakuza who had once been legal advisor to the mighty Yamaguchi-gumi, one of the country's top crime syndicates. The two men would continue to team up throughout the 1990s, delivering some of the director's most memorable films. Foremost among these is The Fire Within, Mochizuki's masterpiece and a benchmark for the Japanese cinema of the 90s.
Ostensibly The Fire Within is a retread of the Lonely Hitman formula, again with a middle-aged yakuza gunman freshly released from jail at its center. But it refined and improved on the 1995 film's already considerable achievements, resulting in not just a truly great film in its genre, but a stirring doomed romance simmering with genuine pathos that is leagues beyond the requirements of the yakuza film. With the powerhouse duo of Yoshio Harada and Reiko Kataoka, two of Japan's best screen actors, in the leads and with a script that is totally focused on its characters' inner lives, there is not a single false note in The Fire Within.
The film witnessed Rokuro Mochizuki's complete maturation as a filmmaker, confidently in control of both the dramatic and the stylistic aspects of his art. Aided by his regular cinematographer Naosuke Imaizumi, who also lent his talents to some of Takashi Miike's most visually sumptuous films, Mochizuki deftly plays with colour, light and shadow. Many of his films up to that point had contained at least one striking composition, but in The Fire Within nearly the entire film is of a subtle but unmistakable beauty, enforced by a remarkable choice of locations. Additionally, the lyricism already intermittently present in his earlier work - the hitman (Sho Aikawa) who observes and copies the movements of a white heron in Dirty Guy, the reassuringly blue projections of aquatic life on the hotel wall in Another Lonely Hitman, the bath tub scene in Skinless Night - now infuses the entirety of the film's running time. In short, the film was triumph, a career high.
The achievements of The Fire Within didn't go unnoticed. It won prizes back home and contributed greatly to the first foreign recognition for the director's work. The following year the Rotterdam Film Festival in Holland, which had shown Another Lonely Hitman two years earlier, devoted a ten-film retrospective to Mochizuki that included The Fire Within plus the three films he had completed since, the odd but poignant A Yakuza in Love, starring Eiji Okuda and again based on a Yukio Yamanouchi novel, the manga adaptation Mobster's Confession, and the awe-inspiring, almost surreally styled morality tale The Outer Way. Mochizuki seemed poised for an international breakthrough.
Several festivals followed on the work done by Rotterdam in 1999 and 2000. Minazuki, the equal parts sad and tooth-crushingly violent story of a sadsack office drone (Eiji Okuda) who goes in search of his missing wife with the aid of his erratic yakuza brother-in-law (Kazuki Kitamura), and Coward, about a young man (Kitamura again) on the fringes of the underworld and the three women that he fails to help when they most need his aid, were programmed at a large number of film festivals. Out of competition the Venice Film Festival showcased Currency and Blondes, an allegorical tale of the willingly subordinate position of Japan toward the United States in the shape of an erotic comedy about a short balding economics professor's fetish for blonde women. Things were looking rosy for Mochizuki. All it would take for him to snugly settle in the comfortable embrace of the international film community was a new film that followed up on the promise. But that film never came. Rokuro Mochizuki mysteriously vanished from the international scene right when Takashi Miike, perhaps his closest spiritual kin within Japanese cinema, arrived with a bang and claimed the position that could have been Mochizuki's.
Rokuro Mochizuki never stopped filming, but the foreign interest in his work went parallel with an inexplicably steep decline in the quality of his work. Currency and Blondes, though blessed with a strong screenplay and a daring execution, already showed symptoms of the problems that began to plague his projects in the new millennium: it was shot on video for a readily apparent minimal budget, something that quickly became a disturbingly frequent characteristic of Mochizuki's films from 2000 onward. Instead of delivering another Fire Within or The Outer Way, he made Yamikagyo: Sagido [tr: Dark profession: swindling], a story about a trio of crooks that was a pale carbon copy of Mobster's Confession, lacking any of that film's playfulness or smart characterisation. He also made an entry in the Young Thugs (Kishiwada Shonen Gurentai) series that looked and played like an extended comedy skit for a TV variety show, and a no-budget comedy about the making of a porno film that was a far cry from the deeply personal Skinless Night. All these were shot on video, a format unsuitable to the director's singular visual sensibilities, which meant that in addition to working with less money and lower quality scripts, his work also lost its rich visual palette. That Mochizuki was capable of making a bad film had been quite clear from 1997's Pinocchio: Man Without Nationality, an insipid attempt at launching Ryo Ishibashi as a star with international potential, of which Mark Schilling perceptively wrote in his The Yakuza Movie Book that "anything close to cultural accuracy and sensitivity would have meant making another movie." But Pinocchio at the very least looked like a film, whereas most of Mochizuki's output in 2000 resembled the work of a first-timer whom producers don't trust enough to handle the real thing.
We can only guess what the exact reasons for the sudden collapse might have been, but it is clear that Mochizuki's choices during this period of his career were not the most fortuitous. As if suddenly tied ball-and-chain to the V-cinema gutter, the following years again brought little that was worthy of mention. Formulaic yakuza films that lacked all the elements that made his previous work in the genre so memorable followed in rapid procession, again mostly made on video. Rudderless, Mochizuki seemed to have completely lost his touch, as witnessed by the painful results of the one ambitious project that came his way, the biopic of Kamachi Yamada, a precocious teenage poet and painter who died in 1977 at the age of 17 by electrocuting himself on his electric guitar. Based on the book written by the boy's mother Chizuko, Kamachi is a whitewashed account in which the central figure is portrayed as a boy genius loved by all he comes into contact with, the mascot of parents, teachers and classmates alike. The screenplay retroactively forces him into the function of role model for contemporary youth, as attested by a misguided wraparound story set in the present day, in which delinquent and suicidal teens are transformed into model citizens when they learn about Kamachi. There is not a trace of the pressure that formed the main motif of Kamachi's work; the film posits him in an ideal world in which everyone understands exactly how wonderfully prodigious he is. Dialogue consists almost exclusively of righteous speeches, the cast is made up of idol types, Kamachi is played by a teenage rapper and not the slightest effort has been made to stay true to a period setting. That Kamachi's mother had a much stronger influence on how the film turned out than Mochizuki is obvious just from the casting of a conspicuously glamorous Jun Fubuki in her role.
Rokuro Mochizuki still hasn't recovered from this dry spell. His genuinely sexy contribution to the otherwise sedate portmanteau piece Jam Films was a tiny blip on an otherwise steady downward trajectory. After his production company went bust and several personal projects were forcibly cancelled, Mochizuki even returned to shooting porn videos on the side. If he is putting his trademark pragmatism very much to work at the moment, he is also putting severe strain on the words of Tony Rayns, who wrote in the catalogue of the 1998 Rotterdam film festival that "Mochizuki is not a frustrated aesthete forced to slum it in 'disreputable' genres".
Do not be fooled, though. Just because his current status seems to be somewhere among the detritus of the VHS era does not mean that this director's past work has ceased to have meaning. Nothing can taint the considerable, and at times colossal, achievements of the Rokuro Mochizuki of the 1990s. Films like Another Lonely Hitman and The Fire Within still stand tall and are now, finally, ready for the rest of the world to admire.
Rokuro Mochizuki filmography
- Honban Video: Hagu
- Onanie Musume: Midara na Shiseikatsu
- Aido Ningyo: Ikasete
- Skinless Night
- Kahanshin Boso Senshi: Gokuraku Hunter [video]
- The Wicked Reporter (Gokudo Kisha)
- MOKO ni Omakase [video]
- The Wicked Reporter 2 (Gokudo Kisha 2)
- Nanpaya Ken [video]
- Dirty Guy (Kitanai Yatsu)
- Another Lonely Hitman (Shin Kanashiki Hitman)
- Apron Stage (Debeso)
- The Wicked Reporter 3: The One That Got Away (Shin Gokudo Kisha: Nigema Densetsu)
- The Fire Within (Onibi)
- Pinocchio: Man without Nationality (Mukokuseki no Otoko: Chi no Shukaku)
- Hocho Mushuku [video]
- A Yakuza in Love (Koi Gokudo)
- Mobster's Confessions (Gokudo Zangeroku)
- The Outer Way (Gedo) [video]
- Tsuge Yoshiharu World [TV, co-director]
- Coward (Chinpira)
- Kishiwada Shonen Gurentai Tokubetsu Hen: I Had a Dream [video]
- AV Guy (B-Kyu Video Tsushin: AV Yaro Nukaseya Ken-chan)
- Yamikagyo: Sagido [video]
- Currency & Blondes (Tsuka to Kinpatsu)
- Shishi no Ketsumyaku
- Giso Satsujin [video]
- Zankyo Densetsu: Haodo [video]
- Konjaku Denki: Kashin
- Jitsuroku: Aomori Koso [video]
- Gekkan: Yinling of Joytoy [video]
- Jam Films (segment: Pandora: Hong Kong Leg)
- Tenshi no Yamahi [video]
- Shura no Chi [video]
- Koharu Komachi
- Nureta Akai Ito
- Johnen Sada no Ai