- 21 November 2001
by Tom Mes
The films of director Akihiko Shiota are unified by their concern for the lives and minds of children and adolescents. On the brink of maturity, the teenagers in Shiota's films are faced with the need for acceptance and normality, but often find that their own personalities lead them in different directions. The results are daring and provocative, even though provocation is usually not foremost on Shiota's mind. Moonlight Whispers (Gekko no Sasayaki, 1999) dealt with a burgeoning sado-masochistic relationship between two high school students. His latest film Harmful Insect (Gaichu, 2001), about a girl seemingly unable to escape harassment and tragedy, has already proved hard to swallow for many.
In Harmful Insect, the character of Sachiko goes through quite a lot of tragedy. Can we say that she is forced to become mature at a very early age, because of the violence she encounters?
Yes, she is a very sad young girl and this sadness lies in the fact that, as you say, she is forced to become an adult. Maybe when you see her in this film, you think she is very strong and she is very close to being an adult. She's becoming an adult, so she certainly has a kind of strength that's unusual in people who are so young. But I think that she is actually a very weak young girl who is hiding all her weak points. She tries not to show them to others.
Also, she doesn't speak so much because words always come from feelings. If she speaks only one phrase, her feelings come out and she wouldn't be able to stop that feeling which she has kept hidden deep inside her. If she would speak and express her feelings, the result would only be more sadness and despair. She wants to keep everything inside, so there's a gap between how she looks on the outside, her coolness in dealing with things like an adult, and what she actually thinks and feels inside her, which is a great confusion. This gap grows wider and wider, and when it becomes too wide what results is a kind of explosion.
Throughout the film she searches for a father figure, or maybe more an older brother figure. The men she encounters in her life are either this type but most of the time the men she meets harass her. For the latter type you seem to be using the image of the fighting fish as a kind of visual metaphor.
What she's looking for is a man who can take of her for the rest of her life, so she doesn't need to worry about anything anymore. But in fact she always meets different kinds of men, who bring more problems into her life. So she can't find the right type for her. In a way Sachiko is very similar to her mother. When her mother was very young she got married to a man, thinking that she would never have another problem for the rest of her life, because she would have her husband to count on. But he went away and left her with a lot of problems, including having to take care of a young girl. And Sachiko is starting to understand that she's becoming like her mother. She's going in the same direction, but she tries hard to break out of this process, to become a different person.
As for the fish, they have great meaning to her, but that meaning has nothing to do with the men who bother her. The analogy is more towards the image of the teacher. Every time she writes a letter to him, the response always comes very late, there's always a gap. The fish is related to this kind of delay.
The people in this film all seem to be communicating, but in reality none of them really are. The best example is the correspondence between Sachiko and the teacher. The teacher worries a lot about Sachiko, but because he writes letters to her, his answer to Sachiko is always late. The moment when Sachiko really needs an answer or advice from him, the letter doesn't arrive on time. So she never receives an answer at the right moment. I wanted to describe the communication breakdown by using this symbol of the letters that cross each other, the time gap.
There's an animal analogy in the title too. What's the significance of the title? Does 'harmful insect' simply refer to Sachiko or is there more to it?
It's a title that the screenwriter proposed to me. This film describes people who are ostracized by society, who are thought of as harmful insects by this society. So the title is very fitting. Actually, from the point of view of Sachiko, it's society that is strange, but from the opposite viewpoint it's the same. Society also thinks Sachiko is crazy.
In Japanese society good and bad are very ambiguous, because adults don't teach their children what is good and what is bad. That fact brings confusion into society. For example, the teacher feels love for Sachiko and because of that he feels a guilt that makes him think about what is good and what is bad. But for Sachiko, it doesn't relate to good or bad. She just needs somebody who will support her, so she needs the teacher. Because of this she wonders why the teacher can't forgive himself. She doesn't understand why he keeps a distance between them.
Here in Europe we have the impression that Japan is a very safe society, where women can walk down the street alone at night and not be bothered. Your film paints a very different picture. Are we in Europe being naïve in our view of Japan?
I think Japan is changing. It's becoming more and more dangerous. Even for men of my age, there are a lot of places that are dangerous to go at night. When women get off the train from work at night, they have to go home along a length of street by themselves. Very often what they do is talk on their mobile phones while walking home. That way, when something dangerous happens, they can immediately ask for help.
This change is also reflected strongly in Japanese cinema, isn't it? A few years ago we saw films that implied something brewing underneath a quiet surface, for instance in the films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa. But the last two years, films have increasingly been showing a situation in which the trouble has already come up to the surface.
I think Kiyoshi Kurosawa is a genius. He chooses to show this changing society through horror, the horror genre. In his horror films there is a special analogy or relationship between everyday life and terror. He always uses both of these elements and mixes them, making it impossible to understand where one ends and the other begins. He can do this so well.
I'm certainly not a genius myself, but I prefer to portray young people because the world around them continuously has a very strong effect on their personalities. In some way this maybe is close to mister Kurosawa's approach.
A recent and very famous example of a film that dealt with these changes in society and their effect on adolescents, is of course Battle Royale. What was your impression of how this film dealt with adolescents and how it approached its adolescent audience?
The problem is that I haven't seen this film yet, so it's very difficult for me to answer. Actually, before mister Fukasaku was going to make it, many people suggested to me that I should adapt the novel into a film. I was very interested in it, but I didn't have time to read the novel, so I had to give up on the whole idea when Fukasaku decided to make the film.
Your films are about children and adolescents, and more specifically about the maturity inside children and adolescents. That can be a tricky subject, because I think a lot of people don't want to know about the maturity or, as in your film Moonlight Whispers, the sexuality of young people. They would prefer to pretend that childhood is a period of pure innocence.
People have an increasing tendency to protect children recently, much more than before. They try to build something around their own children, without allowing them to become human beings, in a way. But they forget that children have their own personality when they grow up, and they don't want to know the kind of person their children are becoming. They want them to always stay children. For me, it's much more interesting to actually discover that emerging personality, to go deeper and deeper into their world, because that is where you find their own beauty, in the way they grow up and become adults.
Because of that, I feel there is a very strong ambivalence in your films. In Moonlight Whispers there is a good example of this: the boy has this masochistic personality and his face has a very sad and mature expression. At the same time he is wearing a school uniform and walking with his bicycle in his hand, which is very characteristic of children.
Of course there is this ambivalence in my films, but it's this ambivalence that is most interesting to me. That means there is a contrast in a character, a harsh one even. They have a weak point and a very powerful point. When these two points come together there is a kind of explosion. When I cast the actors for my films I always try to find people who can express this ambivalence of the characters, this weakness at the same time as strength.
That explosion you talk about comes at the end of Moonlight Whispers, where the girl cries out that she just wants to be 17 and in love, which comes right after she discovers about herself that she has the ability to be sadistic.
I have an interest in this kind of person. She thinks of herself as normal and that she can have a normal relationship with a normal man. But she is together with a masochistic man and actually she becomes a sadist herself. Even if she didn't think of herself as being a sadist, she changes little by little. Then there's this kind of explosion when she says, "Why, if I'm normal, do I have to be with a man like you?"
In Moonlight Whispers, when she has gone through that explosion, she can have a different image of herself and of her future. That's why there's a happy end in that film. In Harmful Insect this is different. Sachiko goes through this explosion, but she can't find a new image of her future. So in this way it's a very tragic ending.
But my impression was that at the end of Harmful Insect, what she does is based on her own decision. She could just as easily have decided to do the opposite thing and wait longer at the restaurant.
She decides to go away with the young man in the last scene. And when she gets in the car, for a while she can see the teacher. Maybe at that moment if she asks the man to stop the car he will do it. But she doesn't, and at that moment she has decided to go down into the abyss. Even if there's a difficult future ahead of her, she has chosen to do it by herself. That's very important, because maybe in this way she can find her own happiness in the future.
It also seems to suggest that any part of her that was still a child is gone.
Yes, she becomes an adult in every way.
You also seem to make the point that if you fall outside your role in society, you also fall outside society completely.
Yes, I wanted to portray this gap. It's a gap between the ones who can fit the rules of society and the ones who choose to stay outside these social rules. For example, a child can go to school and learn all kinds of things, but he or she has no alternatives in life, no other choices beside going to school. This causes a double identity in young people, especially at 13, 14 years old. On the outside they look satisfied with their lives and the way things are going, because everything has been organised in every detail, but in their inner personality they can have some very violent aspects. There is an ambivalence between the two.
Music plays a very important part in Harmful Insect, both as part of the film and in the lives of the characters. It's a little bit similar to the role of music in Don't Look Back. Do you pay particular attention to music when making a film, is it an aspect of particular importance to you?
The music of Don't Look Back is the theme from the film The Longest Day. Because that film was about two boys suddenly fighting for no reason, I wanted to use a war theme. In Harmful Insect I wanted to use music as the breaking point between the quiet emotions and the violence that arises in them. This violent music suddenly starts in the film as a way to break with what's gone before.
The moment when the students sing together as a choir is like a temporary unity, a harmony. They are friends and everyone gets along during that moment, but then it breaks apart at the end again.
There was no special meaning in that scene, actually. The scene is like a frame; they are all together in that moment. Even Sachiko, who is playing the piano and is therefore more towards the edge of the frame, belongs to it.
That's one of the scenes in the film which really show children being children. There's another scene, which is my favourite scene in the film, where Sachiko is on her way home and is followed by a salaryman clearly intent on bothering her. Then when the boy scares the salaryman away, she looks up and she smiles and chases after the boy. That scene reveals her as a real child, especially the moment when she sees this boy.
Thank you (laughs). I like that scene very much too, because of the way Aoi Miyazaki smiles. I think she's the best actress I could ever hope to find. Maybe from now on, I won't be able to find another actress who is that good. She has great intuition, so even if this character can't be explained with dialogue, she understood well what it was she had to express by using her face and posture. From the beginning I only thought of Aoi for this role. Because I had seen Eureka and thought she was wonderful in that film. I got to meet her soon after that and found that she was also a wonderful person in real life as well as being very charming.
Towards the end of the film, there's a scene where Sachiko burns her own house. She commits this big crime and she runs away. First she hitches a ride on a truck, then in a car driven by a woman, and she sleeps on the backseat of that car. In that scene, even though she has this terrible crime on her conscience, when she sleeps she looks like a ten-month old baby. Every time I look at that scene, even though I'm the director of the film, I feel very touched.
In your future films, would you like to continue to keep children and adolescents as your subjects?
Yes I would. If you want to describe the problems of Japanese society today, teenagers are a fitting symbol. It's always them who are confronted with and related to those problems. But I don't only want to make this kind of film. I would also like to make an action movie, something like the films of Hong Kong director Johnnie To. Before making Harmful Insect I was planning to do a musical about female contract killers, a little bit like Seijun Suzuki's Pistol Opera. Maybe I'll try again in the future.
With this film you once again worked with a number of students from The Film School of Tokyo, just like you did on Don't Look Back. What was their role on the film?
I have no special interest in that school per se, but I think there are many good students there. I am a teacher there and I will probably continue using these people as crew on my films.
How do you enjoy teaching there? Because when I visited the school I got the impression that it is very devoted to filmmaking.
To be honest, it's becoming less interesting lately. I've been teaching for five or six years now and that school has changed a bit recently. In the first years, the students were very passionate about filmmaking. But now many of the students consider it like an ordinary school, they're just waiting to be taught something. They have an interest, but not in a passionate way.
Are there any other schools where you teach? Or do you have any other activities beside being a film director?
At the moment I only teach at the Film School of Tokyo, but I'd like to teach somewhere else too. Also I sometimes write for a website that was started by some people who worked for Cahiers du Cinéma Japan. Sometimes I also work as a panellist for special screenings of particular films.
I'd like to talk a little bit about the film Gips. It was part of the Love Cinema series. Were you invited to take part in this project?
I was asked by the producer after they made the first few films. I was asked to make one movie and Takashi Miike was asked to do another one. Of course, I know Miike never refuses a movie, so I thought this would be a good occasion to work on the same series as him, so I accepted.
Did you work from an existing screenplay or did you have an influence on the story?
It was based on an original story written by me, but since I was busy writing another screenplay at the time, I asked a student to turn it into a screenplay. She accepted and then I rewrote it one more time.
That film was shot on digital video. Did you enjoy working on that format? Did it change anything, technically or creatively?
Gips was composed mainly of still shots, because the film dealt with a certain psychological matter. So in this case, digital video was perhaps not the best tool. But I do have great interest in digital video, and in the future I'd like to make a movie about teenagers using digital video. It could be a very good way to express the vitality of young people.
In the very beginning of your career you shot a film on video entitled The Nude Woman. That title is missing from your filmography in the leaflet that Nikkatsu made for Harmful Insect. Are you ashamed of that film or is Nikkatsu ashamed of that film?
Oh no, no. I like that film very much, actually. I always insert that into my filmography myself. But it's V-cinema, a film made for the video market, and in Japan they tend to not include those in filmographies because those films have never been shown in any theatres. Gips was also made for video, but it has played in the cinema.
Your working relationship with Nikkatsu goes back a few years, to Moonlight Whispers which they also produced. How is that working relationship? Does Nikkatsu give you the freedom you need? The subjects of your films are not the easiest or most commercial subjects, yet they let you make those films.
It just happened, there's no special reason for me staying with Nikkatsu. They are not the only production company behind Harmful Insect. Most of the money came from government funding and another big part of the money I raised myself. Actually, at first Nikkatsu didn't like the story, so I had to start the project by myself.
You were a student at Rikkyo University, where you were in a film club with people like Makoto Shinozaki and Shinji Aoyama, among others. You have all gone on to become filmmakers. Interestingly, you seem to share certain elements in your filmmaking. You all seem to search for the balance between realism and fiction in your work and you're also very concerned with the theme of communication between human beings.
I don't know why we share those things. But it's not really true that this film circle was the starting point for all of us. Maybe we met there because we had some common point. Of course there were many people in that film circle and all these people had different views and opinions. Maybe there was a meeting point that was the same for all of us. You're right that there are similar points between my films, Kurosawa's, Shinozaki's and maybe others, but I really couldn't explain why this is the case.