Kenji Murakami

17 June 2008
picture: Kenji Murakami


Hardly the name on everyone's lips, Kenji Murakami has nevertheless spent over a decade steadily building up an impressive body of work. His homemade documentaries seem playful at first, but at closer look they become challenges to most people's understanding of what constitutes a documentary. In Murakami's films, reality turns out to be fictitious and the fiction interrogates our daily reality.

Usually the subject of his own films, recently Murakami has turned his camera on others, delivering two portraits of Japanese filmmakers who operate well outside the established industry. Dear Mrs. Ougi (Haikei, Ogi Chikage-sama) portrays a day in the life of Kenji Onishi, director of such films as Squareworld, who literally risks life and limb (and not just his own) for his work. An Interview with Fumiki Watanabe, The Great Filmmaker (Ore no Rukeiichi (Ryakusho Oreruke)) is a fascinating chronicle of how one of Japan's most dedicated and independent-minded directors goes about getting his films out to audiences.

Murakami's latest, Fujica Single Date (2008), continues the meta-cinematic motif, but harkens back in style and subject - the amorous misadventures of its maker - to the wondrous, mischievous Tel-Club (Natsu ni Umareru, 1999), the film that made his name.

Midnight Eye sat down for an extended conversation with Kenji Murakami during the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival in March 2008.

Your film Tel-Club was one of the many Japanese movies that made a huge impression on me back in 2000 at the Rotterdam Film Festival, which in turn inspired the creation of Midnight Eye, so I'm glad we finally ran into each other.

Me too. I saw your review of my film back then, but my English isn't very good, so I've always wanted to know what you wrote.

I don't remember! It's been eight years since I wrote it.

Which of my films have you seen since then?

I saw How I Survive in Kawaguchi City, Dear Mrs. Ougi and An Interview with Fumiki Watanabe.

Did you see my new film Fujica Single Date?

picture: scenes from 'How I Survive in Kawaguchi City', 'Dear Mrs. Ougi' and 'An Interview with Fumiki Watanabe'

Not yet. Being on the jury, all I've seen here are the competition films.

It's a movie about cheating. My wife and child go off to visit my parents-in-law for a few days, and while they are away I take my 8mm camera and start going out on dates with girls. When you start making 8mm films when you're a kid, usually it's because you want to film pretty girls. It's a way to meet girls or find a girlfriend. I always think about filmmaking, so I also thought about the origins of my interest in filmmaking. The first thing I ever wanted to film was a girl. Making Fujica Single Date, I wanted to go back to this feeling, at a moment when Fujica announced they were going to discontinue production on their Single-8 film stock. It will be the end of 8mm film. I'm only 37 today, but I'm getting older. And film as a medium one day will also be die out. I wanted to synchronise those two things by making this film.

Sounds like you're going back to the style of Tel-Club and pointing the camera at yourself again.

Most of the films I've done have me as the protagonist. I'm not sure whether that's been done much in Japanese film. The directors that did, like Kazuo Hara, made very political films. Of course, there are exceptions, like Masato Hara. I enjoy using the documentary form and a digital camera to create personal films. I don't intend to do anything political or talk about society. It's more important for me to talk about daily life and daily incidents. When How I Survive in Kawaguchi City was shown at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, most of the older filmmakers that were there all got angry with me for making such a personal film. They complained about younger filmmakers and told us we should make more politically aware films. Actually that experience convinced me all the more that I had to continue doing personal work, and not do what those older directors wanted me to do.

Your films are personal and their style is very playful, but since you focus on daily life and on reality, you still get a strong understanding of people and how they live. In Dear Mrs. Ougi and An Interview with Fumiki Watanabe, what you show is the daily life of two individuals.

With Mr. Watanabe I only shot a day where he went around town hanging up the posters and then the following day when he held the screening. We did the interview at the end of the first day. Then I shot his daily life for another couple of days. I made An Interview with Fumiki Watanabe, Dear Mrs. Ougi, and Fujica Single Date as a way to explore what it means to be a filmmaker.

picture: scenes from 'Fujica Single Date'

Beyond the subject of filmmaking, what you show in Dear Mrs. Ougi and An Interview with Fumiki Watanabe are people that live outside normal rules. By showing these people that consciously choose to live differently from how you're expected to live, those two films to me are very political films.

I see. I'm not sure if I can respond to that precisely, but there is a political aspect to it, I guess. For example, both Kenji Onishi and Fumiki Watanabe got into trouble with the authorities and those incidents certainly were politically motivated. Watanabe makes very political films. In the interview I did with him, he told me he had strong desires to eliminate certain people, that he wanted to be a terrorist. He even mentioned who and what he would like to attack, but he asked me to leave those parts out of the film. Have you ever seen any of Fumiki Watanabe's films?

I'm afraid I haven't seen any.

Ah, you really should see them. I didn't include any clips from his films in my movie, but Mr. Watanabe once made a film about the crash of a JAL airliner. He believed that there was a politically motivated plot behind the crash. But the last ten minutes of this film are chanbara! (laughs). Watanabe always wanted to film something along the lines of Masaki Kobayashi's Harakiri, so he decided to do it in that film! He made a film called Hara Hara Dokei, which also deals with terrorism. It's about the time the emperor visited his hometown in Fukushima prefecture and the assassination plot against him. It also talks about the strained relations between Japan and North Korea. As a film, it's in the vein of Black Sunday or Dirty Harry, a really fascinating action movie. Watanabe made it as a tribute to Clint Eastwood. He even named his production company Malpaso, the same as Eastwood's!

But I think Watanabe is a completely unique filmmaker. What I like about him is that whenever his films are shown, be it inside or outside Japan, he doesn't allow anyone to touch them. So Watanabe himself will be the projectionist. He also won't allow any copies to be made, or even DVDs of his films. To promote them, all he uses are posters. He won't do TV spots or anything like that. So in order to see his films, you will have to find the posters, which will tell you where and at what time the movie will be playing. No previews on Youtube, no DVDs, nothing like that. I think he is probably the only one who cares so strongly about film. If you go to one of his screenings, you will realise what film is. I find that really interesting.

picture: scenes from 'Tel-Club'

Normally all we use are our senses of sight and hearing for films, but it sounds like he believes you should also use your sense of touch.

Yes, exactly. You need to use all your senses. Since he is there projecting the film on his own equipment, you can hear the sound of the projector. The atmosphere is very different from going to a normal movie theater, it's almost magical. If you go to see his films, you will have a truly different experience. But why do I talk so much about Mr. Watanabe? (laughs) I must really like him.

That's quite clear from the way you talk about him. And what I see here is also something that dispels the notion you mentioned earlier, that your generation is apolitical. Of course, it depends on how you define the term "political" and how you approach politics.

That's right, yes.

The thing is, I think, that for that earlier generation being political came naturally because politics were present all around them. It was part and parcel of the period they lived in. They grew up in that atmosphere and it shaped them. But the filmmakers of that generation who continue to make political films today, they always do it from a framework that is based on the political situation of the late 1960s and early 1970s. That is their frame of reference and as a result, that struggle for them is still the same struggle. They have a very clear definition of what "being political" is, what kind of behavior, what kind of artistic expression fits with that. It's only logical that someone from a different generation, who grew up in a different environment, would have a different idea about politics. But the older generation's political point of view hasn't changed, so it has become dogmatic. They notice that this younger generation of filmmakers doesn't talk about the Red Army, World War 2, or the emperor system, and they consider that apolitical.

There is a film directed by Masato Harada, called The Choice of Hercules, which deals with the United Red Army and the Asama-sanso case. I directed the making-of for that film. While I was working on that, someone called me up to say that Masao Adachi was going to be released from prison and asked me if I wanted to film that. So I was working on this film that showed the case from the side of the police and the government, and they asked me to go and film Adachi, who was on the side of the Red Army. Being on the set of Harada's film was my job, but going to film Adachi was like a moral imperative.

Two years ago I worked with the director Tatsuya Mori on a documentary about media literacy for TV Tokyo. Mori was going to interview several filmmakers including Kazuo Hara, Akira Ogata, and Takeharu Watai, but he disappeared halfway through because he felt too much pressure. And since we hadn't finished, I had to take over his role as interviewer. I interviewed journalists and members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult. But actually, all of it was a hoax. We told the audience at the end of the program that we scripted the film from beginning to end. The scriptwriter was Kosuke Mukai, who normally works with Nobuhiro Yamashita, and the editor was Tetsuaki Matsue, director of Identity and Annyong Kimchee.

Japanese TV audiences aren't very media literate. They believe that a documentary always tells the truth. Mr. Mori and I have very similar views about this, so with this documentary we wanted to show that even though the director changes halfway through the film, the process remains the same. We wanted to show that a documentary doesn't always equal reality. We wanted the viewers to understand that even a documentary is based on a script. One of the problems with politics today is that the people believe everything the media tell them. Every little item on the news can immediately cause a panic. This is something we would like to confront and change. If people's media literacy improved, they would also understand documentary films better. My views on filmmaking changed after I got married and had a child. I think about my son's future and I want him to live in a healthy society.

picture: scenes from 'How I Survive in Kawaguchi City'

Take that documentary Yasukuni. There was a lot of pressure on the makers of that film and on theaters, to prevent it from being shown. There's a multiplex in Shinjuku called the Wald 9, and they do sometimes show independent films too, but they dropped the idea of screening Yasukuni. Us documentary filmmakers, we are very aware of the existence of these kinds of pressures in Japan. I will turn 40 soon and I'm starting to feel a sense of responsibility for those who are younger than me.

By the way, do you know how I make a living? It's impossible to live off making independent documentaries, so I mostly work as a director on TV series, mostly on idol shows. Right now I'm doing Keitai Deka at TBS for producer Andrew Tamon Niwa. Together with Takashi Shimizu, Yudai Yamaguchi and a few others I did Kaiki Daikazoku, The Big Horror Family, which is a kind of horror comedy series. The producer for that was Yo Umezaki at TV Tokyo. That's how I make a living. Oh, there's another thing I do too: I make these factory videos. There are people who are factory otaku - such people actually exist. Like trainspotters, except they are factory spotters. So I make videos that feature only shots of factories. These DVDs sell really well. Also, my latest work was shot in a sex museum. The museum was going to close its doors, so I went there and filmed every single object in their collection. The final package is a three-hour DVD. That's how I make money. Most documentary filmmakers can't make a living off their work, which is why a lot of us become teachers or work in television. The TV work is totally opposite from what I do in my own films, because it's meant for a mass audience. But if you look at the whole thing, I think it's really well balanced, with the public stuff on one side and the personal things on the other.

I really want my documentaries to reach a lot of people and to have an effect on them. Take How I Live in Kawaguchi City: it's a story about getting married and being a newlywed. It's a very personal story, but that is a film I would like everybody to see. I work in the mass media, but at the same time I make these very personal documentaries, with one camera and one computer. But I think it's those films that can change society. With just these simple tools, you can create very interesting films that can touch other people. You don't need a professional scriptwriter, you don't need actors and you certainly don't need idols, but you can make very interesting films. I'd like to continue making many more of these kinds of movies, but unfortunately there aren't many people out there making these kinds of personal documentaries. There is Tetsuaki Matsue, who I already mentioned, and Masaru Nomoto. He won an award at Yamagata last year for Back Drop Kurdistan, a film about asylum seekers from Turkey. He is thirteen years younger than me and he makes his films all by himself. He studied documentary filmmaking at the Japan Academy of Moving Images, where he presented the idea for his film to his teachers, but they turned him down. Normally in that situation you give up and move on to something else, but he quit school and went ahead with that project by himself. As a result, he won the Citizen's Award at Yamagata. His film is very interesting and he is very talented and I would like to see more young directors like him coming up. But young people think that making a movie takes a lot of effort and a lot of money. I want to show with my films that that's not true. You don't need crews and actors to make interesting films. So if I continue to make these movies, hopefully I can inspire others to do the same.