- 4 August 2004
by Kuriko Sato
Former animator and commercial director Katsuhito Ishii is known for his own particular brand of hyper-stylised, self-referential films, creating quite a splash with his debut film Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl. Action-packed and day-glo coloured, Shark Skin Man and its follow-up Party 7 seemed to exist entirely in a universe of manga characters come to life.
After a three-year period in which he worked on the CGI animated series Hal and Bons, as well as the animation for his friend Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1, Ishii is back with a feature film, The Taste of Tea, an altogether more restrained work that earned a selection for the Director's Fortnight in Cannes.
The Taste of Tea seems like a major change compared to your previous films. For a start, it's a film that focuses on human beings rather than on comic book characters. Do you feel that you have gone through a change as a filmmaker?
For my first two films, my main drive was the wish to make a feature film. I was satisfied with just the fact that I was able to make them. By contrast, with The Taste of Tea I didn't have a particular desire to make a film. I was watching films and TV series like The Yellow Handkerchief with Ken Takakura and From the North, which were quite different from my own films. They're human drama, family stories. Watching them, I thought that I would like to see such films with a good human story more often. But those films always have an element of tragedy to them, something bad always happens to the characters at some point, which I don't like so much. So I felt it would be nice to make a family story in which no big tragic moments happen.
There is a movie from the Chibi Maruko-chan anime called Watashi no Suki na Uta [tr: The song I love], which has a kind of J-pop flavour and I like it a lot. I wanted to make a film like that, except as live action, which didn't exist yet. I started taking notes with ideas and things that I wanted to see in such a film and those notes just kept accumulating, so I decided to make the film. The fundamental difference between my first two films and this one is the starting point: I made the movie that I wanted to see myself.
What kind of films do you like to watch normally? Which directors?
In terms of foreign films my favourite directors include Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch, and Paul Verhoeven. They're all quite tough filmmakers. Among Verhoeven's films I especially like Robocop and Starship Troopers. On the whole I prefer Japanese films, though, because I can understand the language. I like Hiroshi Shimizu and Kohei Oguri a lot.
Oguri's films are very different from your own work.
True, but Oguri was my filmmaking teacher in university. He always reprimanded me in class in a way you normally don't experience when you're an adult. Every time I wrote an essay or something he would lash out at me, telling me I was worthless. He was pretty harsh and quite scary too.
In the end I gave up on filmmaking and switched to animation and eventually started directing commercials. But later when I saw Oguri's film Sleeping Man I was really moved by it. I felt he'd made a great film. It reminded me of what he always told me in university, that it's not necessary to compose a scene from many cuts, one long take can be enough. I used to believe the opposite and tended to use lots of cuts. When I saw Sleeping Man I finally understood what he'd told me.
But still, your own work is very different.
The type of film is very different, but I definitely was strongly influenced by Sleeping Man. I printed out images from the film and kept those with me as a kind of talisman.
Which aspects of it influenced you?
His persistence in the use of landscape. The normal tendency in Japanese films is to use a landscape to show the passing of time or explain the required circumstances for the scene to come, in which case the landscape itself has no meaning. In Oguri's film it can't be replaced by anything and it has an inherent tension. Also, because there is very little action in his films every cut gains in significance. He does a similar thing with the juxtaposition of landscapes from scene to scene. By doing so he keeps the viewers on their toes all the time.
I was also strongly influenced by Takeshi Kitano's Sonatine. With that film I did the same thing, I printed out all the shots and carried those prints with me.
Did working from your own original idea for Taste of Tea, rather than from manga adaptations like before, make a difference?
Doing a very faithful adaptation is not very interesting work, so I always add my own original characters. Minetaro Mochizuki, the author of Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, told me that he wanted to see a different version of his manga, so I added Tatsuya Gashuin's character and Susumu Terajima's character. Some people felt that I'd made too many changes, but I enjoyed adapting it in such a bold way.
Taste of Tea is about a family but I didn't want to make a simple, harmonious story. I imagined a series of episodes from the family's lives that would be interesting. For example, for the character of the grandfather - who is kind of my ideal image of old age; when I grow old, I hope to become like him - I imagined that he would always tease the child, which would create a funny situation. I know some people who live in the countryside and who work from their homes, which inspired the character of the mother. Actually, even today in the animation industry most of the cell animation work is still done by hand, except for the colouring. Since the standards have gone up and animation has become a lot smoother over the years, the work of an animator has become a lot more demanding.
The film's long running time comes from the many sidesteps the story takes. You focus a lot on small events that go on in and around the main characters' lives, and less on a straight plot. Was this your intention from the start?
It came about completely by chance. I wanted to make a film that doesn't have a clear storyline and that would be a collection of many short episodes. It took me almost a year to gather and come up with these episodes, then when I thought I had a sufficient number I began drawing storyboards. I still didn't think about a storyline at this point, but rather I considered what would be appealing to the viewer. My previous films were different, I worked in a more conventional way, developing the plot first. I want to get rid of that way of working for Taste of Tea, so it was very challenging to come up with a different approach, especially because I had no one to fall back upon. Nobody commissioned me to make the film, I instigated the project myself. I took as much time as I wanted in developing the story and during that time I also worked with other directors.
Did your work on Kill Bill happen during that period as well?
Yes. The animation sequence I did for Kill Bill was extremely violent and I put all my violent feelings and desires into it. So all of those feelings inside me were exorcised by Kill Bill and I think that is the reason why Taste of Tea became such a warm-hearted film. I'm happy that things unfolded in this way.
I had several meetings with Quentin before Kill Bill and he told me that movies have their own universe and that Kill Bill is the kind of film that the characters from Reservoir Dogs or True Romance would go watch on a Friday night. It's a fiction within fiction. He said our Earth is not the only Earth, but that there are many versions of it, each one slightly different. I thought about what he said and it inspired me, it gave me confidence to develop Taste of Tea in the way I did.
I know Tarantino was a fan of your first film Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, which also showed a clear influence from his work. Could you talk more about your relationship with him?
The first time we met was about five years ago at the film festival of Hawaii, when they were showing Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl. The director of the festival liked my film a lot. He was a friend of Quentin's and he told him about my film, so Quentin came to see it at the festival. Afterwards we went out for a drink together with several other festival staff and guests, and we talked for a long time. I had a lot of questions for him about how he'd made his films and he answered all of them in great detail. He told me which parts of my film he'd liked and which aspects of filmmaking he thought I was good at. Over the course of our conversation the other people left one by one until it was only the two of us remaining.
After that a lot of time passed until he came to Tokyo to prepare Kill Bill. He got in touch with me and we met up. He gave me a copy of the screenplay and asked me if I was interested in doing character designs for the animation sequence. The screenplay was really exciting, so I told him I would be very happy to work on the film. From that moment it became a proper job and I didn't see him again during the production of the film. He sent me a fax with his wishes for the character designs and I did my work based on those descriptions.
There are many cameos in Taste of Tea, like Shinji Takeda, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, Hideaki Anno, Susumu Terajima, Ryo Kase, etc. What made you decide to cast these people in such small roles?
They are all people I like a lot and they're good actors too. Especially Anno. He's a director, but he's a really good actor too. I met Kusanagi during a meeting I had with another director. He happened to drop by that day and by chance I'd brought all the costume designs for Taste of Tea. He wanted to see them, so I showed him and then he said he would like to play the cinematographer, because that character was supposed to wear a pair of jeans rolled up to above the thighs. He liked the idea and wanted to play the character. But since his schedule is so busy, it turned out he couldn't do it. Some time later he called me up and said he had a few days off and could he play a part in my film. He was quite insistent, so I created a new character for him and made him play the assistant cinematographer.
There are two actors in the film who have been in every film of yours: Tadanobu Asano and Tatsuya Gashuin. Could you explain what appeals to you in these two actors?
Asano is special. He is very perceptive. If he accepts a project, that means he understands everything: the story, the characters, the meaning, all of it. He has worked with many very interesting directors, like Shinji Somai and Takashi Miike, and over the years he has developed his own method. He has a entirely different state of mind from regular actors and he is incredibly motivated. He is so different from other actors that he's almost an extraterrestrial. If I have trouble casting for a character because the actors can't grasp the part, then I always ask Asano to do it. That was the case for his characters in both Shark Skin Man and Party 7. His character in Taste of Tea was quite complex and had many different sides, but he interpreted it very well.
As for Gashuin, just his appearance is already very funny. He's very good at adding flavour to a film, at spicing it up. At the screening of Taste of Tea in Cannes, the audience laughed at the opening scene in which all he does is repeatedly open and close a window. So his humour is a very universal one.
Is he like that in real life?
Yes, he's exactly the same in reality. He's a very kind man, who likes to talk and entertain people. He tends to overdo it at times, but if you can rein him in a bit as a director he can be really wonderful.
The scene where he performs the Mountain Song is very memorable. It felt like you really wanted to have that scene in the film.
It was a must. When I began thinking of episodes for the film, I came up with that scene very quickly. It was on the second page of my notes and right from the start I also came up with the lyrics for the song. So there was no doubt that I had to include this scene in the film. I wanted to make a movie in which strange things like that happen. My only concern in making this film was to make the movie I wanted to see. I didn't think about whether others would consider it a 'good film', so I was free to add strange scenes like the Mountain Song and keep them in the final film.
After Party 7 it took you three years to make The Taste of Tea. Do you plan to take as long to start your next film?
I already finished shooting my next film. I'm editing it at the moment, it's called Naisu no Mori [tr: The forest of nice]. I founded a new production company with two other directors. The film is an omnibus directed by the three of us, it's a movie of one hundred gags. In between the three main segments we put commercials, which are also gags. But the whole thing combines into a single story.
Some of the actors from Taste of Tea are in this film as well, like Terajima, Asano, and also Hideaki Anno. We were actually thinking of making a series of these films and make one every year. It wouldn't necessarily be all the same kind of films, though. I'd like to do a big science fiction film, an animation film and also a serious comedy. What's more, I'm also considering doing a remake of a Hiroshi Shimizu film at some point.