Kohei Oguri

22 November 2005
picture: Kohei Oguri


Director Kohei Oguri is literally in a class by himself. Whereas most Japanese directors seem to habitually churn out multiple films a year, Oguri works at a rate of two films a decade. Despite (or thanks to) this Kubrickian pace, his films have always been highly lauded across the world. His debut film Muddy River (Doro no Kawa, 1981) was nominated for an Oscar, while his later films have won him prizes in Cannes and Berlin. The year 2005 sees his return to spotlights, after an absence of nearly ten years, with The Buried Forest (Umoregi), a stunningly beautiful, pleasantly meandering tale of small town life.

I believe you once said that in our history, our use of images has become increasingly simplified. From giant murals and ceiling paintings to a TV soap opera with a disposable plotline and fake emotions. Can we say that this belief is the premise of your filmmaking?

Yes, that's correct. The images we see around us are increasingly devoid of emotion. The relationship between the images that are being filmed and the emotion they convey has fallen apart. In the world of cinema, fictional film, the question of how to portray reality is rarely even discussed anymore. In Japan as a whole, everything has come to look the same. The landscapes outside the cities are identical, no matter where you go the atmosphere and the way everything is built is exactly the same. There is no human emotion left in the image that we see of Japan today. If you see an old bridge, something that was built quite a while ago, you can see the human effort that went into it, you notice the emotion, a resonance from the past. That has disappeared now.

When you travel through Japan by train, it often feels like the country is one big suburb.

We Japanese used to be very spiritual people. About 65% of the land is mountains, so our emotions, our feelings, and the basis of our imagination came from those mountains. That was our mentality. Our relationship with nature wasn't antagonistic. It was more mysterious, mystical. The mentality was not to dominate nature, but to co-exist with it. That was the positive root of our spirit. In making The Buried Forest, my aim was to show that spirit of co-existence with nature.

In how far does a society like that still exist today?

At the basis, there are still elements of it. We can't live if we have only a one-sided mentality. If that's our way of thinking, we won't survive very long. On their day off, people want to go out into nature; at the end of our working day, we like to sink ourselves into the bathtub. We need those moments of reviving or refreshing ourselves. You can't live being busy and business-minded all the time.

picture: scenes from 'The Buried Forest'

Such concern with tradition could easily be interpreted as reactionary. But change is inevitable, so how do you look at the balance between progress and tradition?

Tradition is bound to change. Maybe it should change, because that process is only natural. The community that is portrayed in The Buried Forest is not the personification of a wish to go back to olden days. Regression is not what I intended to express. In the early parts of the 20th century, the Japanese still lived according to 'mura', the community mentality in which all people think the same way and no one can dissent. Because of that mentality no one opposed the war, and that's why World War II could happen. I didn't portray the community in my film to say that we should go back to that mentality. When you think of the word 'tradition', it's easily associated with conservatism. The right-wing use it to enforce their political thinking. I wanted to go against that view of tradition.

The discovery of the petrified forest of the film's title is a very impressive moment. The later scenes set amongst those giant tree trunks reminded me of the films of Kenji Misumi, who very often filled his images with large, dead trees. His set designer was Akira Naito, who also worked on some of your earlier films. Is there a lingering presence of Naito's work in The Buried Forest, you think?

I think it has more to do with something that is deeply rooted within the Japanese people and culture. The Japanese relate closely to the trees and forests. Mr. Naito used to be the apprentice of Hiroshi Mizutani, who was the set designer for Kenji Mizoguchi. So I believe that this traditional relationship between the people and the forest has a very strong presence in Akira Naito's mind and work, through the influence of Mizoguchi and Mizutani. But mister Naito is sick right now, so regretfully he couldn't work on this film.

Going back to your original premise, you spoke of a process of moving from vast images that we are free to interpret to something whose message is very strictly limited and defined. Of course, in cinema you have no choice but to work within a frame. What are your thoughts on the limits imposed by the frame? For example, you didn't shoot The Buried Forest in a Scope ratio, which would have brought the film closer to those vast images we spoke about.

Well, first off, it's pointless to compare the width of human vision to a film image. One is three-dimensional, the other only two-dimensional. The film image is similar to reality, but at the same time completely different. Right there already, cinema becomes fiction. Instead of trying to overcome that hurdle by widening the scope of the image, we can emphasise the fiction, to try to find the reality within the fictional image.

picture: scenes from 'Muddy River', 'Sting of Death' and 'Sleeping Man'

For that you decided to use the High Definition digital camera, didn't you? How close did you come to the result that you envisioned, after transferring to 35mm film for projection, etc?

Filming on HD is different to begin with. Just as shooting on film, it has its advantages and its drawbacks. With film you can't shoot in dark places. HD catches every signal, even a faint light. But when you shoot with HD in bright light, the images become almost too colourful, like a colouring book. But since it's digital, it's easy to manipulate the image after shooting. It's almost like drawing or painting - you can make changes as you go along. You need a balance though, because it's easy to over-manipulate.

You once used an interesting metaphor for your view of daily life, saying that it's like the sea: on the surface you have the waves and lots of activity, but underneath that, things are much more calm. You also said that you prefer to stay in the calm part. Is this why you've made so relatively few films? Do you consciously stay away from the feverish, conveyor-belt production mentality?

(Laughs) I would really like to come up to the surface and have the opportunity to make more films. If I make a film, it will be my expression, so even if I make films more often I don't think that would come at the expense of what I'm trying to say. Films move, they're called 'movies', so their function is to be active and show movement. But there are different ways of looking at movement. If you shoot something in close-up and your focus is narrow, all you will see on screen is that one movement. However, if you take a few steps back and frame that same thing wider, then you will still have that same movement, but at the same time you also see everything that is around it. To me, to show that fuller vision is to live in the calm, deep sea.