- 20 March 2001
by Tom Mes
Makoto Shinozaki first caught the eye of the international movie community in 1998, when his privately-funded debut film Okaeri was warmly received at festivals worldwide. An all-round film enthusiast, Shinozaki can go from one extreme of the cinematic spectrum to the other: he has a great love for horror and action films, but as a filmmaker his interests lie elsewhere - as witnessed by Okaeri, a strong and thoughtful examination of the effects of schizophrenia on the lives of one young couple.
This interview was held in February 2000 at the Rotterdam Film Festival, where Shinozaki's feature length documentary about the making of Takeshi Kitano's Kikujiro, Jam Session (Jam Session - Kikujiro no Natsu Koshiki Kaizokuban), was screened.
You've just directed a documentary about the making of Takeshi Kitano's Kikujiro. Had you worked with Kitano before?
I first worked with Kitano-san when he was making his third film A Scene at the Sea. I interviewed him, as a writer. Then every time he made a new film after that I interviewed him.
Did you ever work with him on his films, as a member of the crew?
But you do have a background in film education?
I didn't attend film school, but I went to the same university that Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Akihiko Shiota also attended. Masayuki Suo of Shall We Dance also went there. But the university itself has nothing strictly to do with film.
But I understand you were making films in high school.
When I was fourteen I bought a used 8 millimeter camera and started making movies with my friends.
What kind of movies were those?
Horror films (laughs).
When was it you finally got into filming as a professional?
By the time we graduated from university, the major studios were no longer hiring assistant directors. So we had no choice but to keep on making 8 millimeter films on our own. I had to find a job after graduating, so I began to work in a film theater as a projectionist, ticket seller, whatever. Our theater was kind of like an art house and there was one film that I really wanted to help succeed, and that was John Cassavetes's Love Streams. A friend of mine happened to be editing a magazine. It wasn't a film magazine, but he said "Well, I can't pay you, but you can write whatever you want about movies", so I wrote about Love Streams and that was the beginning of my writing about films.
When Cahiers du Cinema Japan started about that time, they decided to write articles about Japanese directors. Kitano had only made his first two films, Violent Cop and Boiling Point, but I wrote a long essay about Kitano for Cahiers Japan. And Takeshi-san read that essay. At the same time a rather large mainstream culture magazine called Switch asked me if I would interview Takeshi Kitano.
At that point you hadn't met him before?
I met him for the first time at the interview. Because I wanted to see how he shot on location, I spent the last three days of the shooting of A Scene at the Sea on set. My editor at Switch, Hiroko Matsuda, went on to make a wonderful book about John Cassavetes, then she decided to leave Switch and I asked her if she would produce my film. And that's how I made Okaeri.
How did you go from critic to filmmaker, apart from finding a producer? I assume you wrote the script as well?
I kept on writing scripts and making 8 millimeter films throughout. I knew that no distributor would look at me seriously because I was completely unknown and relatively inexperienced, so I worked as a projectionist for four years and I was active as a screenwriter for a cineclub and saved up enough money to make the film.
Also I worked on a Kiyoshi Kurosawa film called The Guard from Underground. I was there to watch him work, but they had so little money and so little staff that by the time I realised it, I was already part of the crew.
I had known him from the university days, but to see the very talented Kurosawa-san labour under really brutal production conditions because of the lack of money I thought "I can't work this way. I have to raise my own money, put my own money aside and do my film completely independently".
Could you tell us something about that first film, because I'm not familiar with it.
It's about a young couple, three years into a marriage. The husband is so busy with work, he loves his wife but he is seldom home. Then one day he realises his wife is schizophrenic. And he realises that he has to face the situation and that they have to face each other.
And how did you go from horror filmmaker in your youth to tackling these kinds of themes? What happened?
(laughs) I like horror and action films as a genre because you see human beings in their extreme. So it's not really as different as you might imagine. There's no rolling heads or spurting blood in Okaeri, but there is discommunication. Which is in fact more frightening to me.
So far Okaeri has been your only fiction film. What themes do you see yourself tackling in your future fiction films?
I'm not clever enough to think about the movie after the next one until I finish the next. But I really would like to make a movie about real human beings instead of dolls or fabricated people.
No matter how much time we spend with our family or our loved ones, ultimately we're a separate consciousness and we finally can't really understand or know each other. And that's where misunderstandings or friction arises from. Nonetheless it is for that reason that we attempt to get to know one another. It's that very process that I'm interested in.
So some people assume that at the end of Okaeri the wife is cured and it's a happy ending, I think what I was really trying to portray was a sense of two people born from completely different backgrounds attempting to share the same time and space.
Do you feel that those kinds of films aren't made enough in Japan at the moment?
There are people in my generation I think who are trying to make that kind of film. Like the film After Life by Hirokazu Kore-eda. People who are not so caught up with the big fiction idea, but who are staying closer to home, closer to their daily lives.
But for me I guess I do need to create some kind of a fictional world that's believable. You were there at the talkshow when Kinji Fukasaku said that his approach was to take this fictionalised world and try to hammer away at it. Whereas the approach of the younger generation is to not even start out with creating a fictionalised world, to start out almost with reality and build up a little bit from there. And that's something I agree with. That's the big difference.
I think that certainly After Life and M/Other by Nobuhiro Suwa are successes of that approach. But if you stick too close to reality, the film just shrinks and shrinks. Out of a 24-hour day a film lasts at most about two hours and the size of the frame is quite small compared to what we see of the world, so in a way because it's so limited in time and space, the closer you try to make it to reality the more you realise it's not.
People say that film is freedom and that by using computer graphics you have a limitless ability to express everything. I don't agree with that. In a way film may be the most limiting medium of all. Even when you're talking to people you're familiar with, you don't always know when you've communicated. There's a certain sense of limitations there and that's identical to the kinds of limitations you have in film.
Also, there's something about film where the more you try to show, the more you lose in a way. But then if you try to limit it too much, it starts to shrink as well.
Wouldn't you be more at home then in literature?
This is the best for me, being a film director. I can't sit in a room alone and try to think up things. I hate writing scripts. I always work with a writer and friends and the producer on scripts. And I have people who have nothing to do with the film business read my scripts. I'm interested in their opinion.
For your next feature do you intend to once again raise the money yourself or will you start looking for investors? Because I can imagine with those kinds of themes you will have trouble finding them.
I think I'd like to do something in between the very quiet film and the genre film.
Going back to Jam Session, who originated the project? Did you go to Office Kitano with the proposition?
Up until now, before Jam Session, several making-ofs of the Kitano films had been made, but usually by TV companies, because of mister Kitano's tv activities. Office Kitano decided they didn't want that anymore, they wanted something different. But because mister Kitano is quite shy, they didn't want to shove some different director they didn't know in his face. This is why they approached me.
So the idea originated with Office Kitano?
The idea was theirs, yes.
And the earlier tv documentaries came from other companies?
Well, the difference is partly because TV and film shooting are very different. There was a little bit of discommunication between the two crews usually. And also because the TV companies didn't want to spend so much money, they would only show up at what looked like the most interesting parts of the shoot, whereas I insisted I wanted to go every day.
And I didn't want to just show up with a camera one day, so I started going into production meetings and saying hello and have them get used to me being around. So by the time shooting started, people pretty much knew who I was.
I can imagine there is an added bonus to starting the documentary so early. Because aside from shooting the documentary you also learn as a filmmaker from seeing someone else work.
Exactly. Actually, the reason I started so early was about more than just observing the whole thing. I know from making Okaeri that once you get started there's no time for discussion. The critical time for that is preproduction. And also I wanted to get a sense of the people as much as possible.
How big a crew did you use?
A cameraman and I each shot with a digital camera. We had an assistant and once in a while a sound guy.
And why did you choose to shoot on video?
It was both cheaper and also more flexible when you're filming around another crew, because the microphone is on the camera. And because it was cheaper, it allowed us to stick around longer. We were given a budget and told "Do whatever you want within this budget".
Isn't it also true that there is a bigger market in Japan than in say Europe for features shot on digital video?
There aren't actually that many theatres that can screen video films in Tokyo.
And on a straight-to-video level?
Those are actually shot on 16 and converted to video. The stuff that is shot originally on video is so low budget there's hardly a market for it.
How big do you see the role of editing in documentaries as opposed to fiction? Do you use a fiction editing style to for instance build up tension, or do you like to keep it as honest as possible, almost like you recorded it?
If anything I would prefer to bring a documentary approach TO fiction, rather than clear storyboarding and first shooting this and then that. Because I believe if you shoot it that way it's so predictable. The unexpected rarely happens. I'd like for it to become something I couldn't have imagined. I think it's really boring for a documentary to have a clear goal in mind and a conclusion, where you eliminate any parts of the filming that don't lead to that goal.
Is that the reason why there are no interview scenes in Jam Session?
I had considered interviewing before I started, but as I was filming I felt I didn't need interviews. Certainly there's no time to interview on location. I thought "e;Well, if I finish the film and I absolutely have to have an interview then I can interview him afterwards"e;. But as I edited I realised I didn't need one. I had only forty days and I had no idea how I was going to cut the film, so it was a bit of a nightmare. We had a 108 hours of footage, so it took about ten days just to screen. The actual editing was thirty days.
You're not just here in Rotterdam with Jam Session, you're also taking part in the Cinemart (the Rotterdam Film Festival's production development program - TM). Could you tell us something about the project you're working on?
Unfortunately last year I was about to start location scouting when the producer bailed out. I've now found a new producer and we're working on it. But I don't want to talk about it too much. I don't want to jinx myself (laughs).
But you would stay with those themes you discussed earlier and focus on human beings?
I do want to create a fictional stage, but try to portray humans as realistically as possible. But I still feel like it's sort of stereotypical portraits. I think Fukasaku-san has all kinds of experiences that he gained outside the world of film. I don't think I have enough of those experiences.
In Fukasaku's film Under the Flag of the Rising Sun there is one scene I will never forget, where some soldiers are killed for desertion after the war is over. Right after, like three days after. And the reason was that one of the officers attacked the soldiers, so they killed him in self-defence. But that kind of 'friendly fire', where you kill a superior officer, has to be punished by death. For any reason, at least in the military back then.
The three of them want to eat some rice before they're executed. And this is a historical footnote, but during World War II, especially towards the end, Japanese soldiers were eating nothing. Officers had rice, but soldiers were living off the land, essentially off nothing. No one was eating rice, especially not civilians. In Japan it was as precious as gold. My own father, who passed away recently, was unable to eat any rice as a child. He really couldn't eat rice in later life. He would eat sweet potatos, but eating rice was a special occasion.
So, their wish is granted, and they're fed the dregs of the leftover rice and as they eat this, they start to cry. Of course, they're worried about the people they'll be leaving behind once they're executed, but they're all so starved and hungry that the way they express that desire is through rice. That scene is not about the fact that the camera angle is interesting or the acting is wonderful, it's an almost historic moment in a way, that you could only express on film. I don't know if I could ever shoot a scene that powerful, but I would like to try to get there.
Those scenes I'm sure stem from Fukasaku-san's own experiences, he at least lived through the times, but for you I would imagine you would stay closer to home, very much in the here and now.
I think if I stay too close to myself, it would start to shrink. Imagination is very important, but it has to feel real. I think that certainly with Okaeri, part of the reason why I couldn't turn it into the film I really wanted it to be was that maybe I hadn't lived enough.
But I actually think there was a lot to learn from making the film itself. My cameraman was 74 and he had worked with Fukasaku-san at Toei. When you work with people so different from you, you really see the possibility for change inside yourself. So I want to continue to grow through the process of making films. I think in fact it's not so much the director who makes the film as the film that makes the director.
Working with such experienced crew members, would that maybe be a way of filling in the bits of experience that you think you yourself lack?
Now that you've made Jam Session do you see yourself making more documentaries in the future?
I would like to make documentaries. Maybe there is not so much of a difference between documentary and fiction actually. Of course you write a script, but inevitably when you start shooting, reality intervenes and it changes things. So you really have to take a much more documentary approach to dealing with what happens.
People often ask "What is film?" and I have trouble answering. Just like the waves of the sea that all look identical, in fact they're all different. So you have to record something that will only happen once in your life. In Hollywood or wherever actors who can do the same thing over and over again are praised, but I don't think that's necessarily the case. I have to keep awake for that very special moment that will only happen once in your life.
Are these the experiences you gained through the making of Jam Session or did you see yourself even beforehand making documentaries?
I always felt that way.
I can imagine you would be very much behind improvisation on set by your actors.
There was some improvisation in Okaeri as well, even though I had a script. There's a scene where the wife locks herself into a bathroom. We shot that with two cameras, a twenty-minute-long scene. So because each magazine of film only lasts eleven minutes and we wanted to shoot for twenty, and because we didn't know when she would decide to come out and how she would do. So we miked it well and prepared for whatever would happen.
In the script she locks herself into the bathroom and he doesn't go to work because he's worried. Several hours later, she finally walks out and finds him sitting in the dark, in the kitchen. In the script she comes out of the bathroom crying, but I said to her "Go with your emotions, it's not tears we are looking for. Just don't come out until you really want to see him again."
We did about three or fours days of rehearsal before we started shooting. Not to make the acting perfect, but to sort of free up the limbs. We were going to rehearse another scene, but Susumu Terajima, the actor who played the husband, began talking to the empty bathroom. So I said "We are going to rehearse a different scene today" and without a word she just went and locked herself in the bathroom.
And after about five minutes you could hear her sobbing inside and he kept talking to her. And at that time she eventually emerged crying and sat down next to him. And he suddenly grabbed the towel that was beside the refrigerator and started wiping her face. The assistant director was rolling video, but I stopped him. And I tried to let them have the freedom they want, to stay out of their way.
It was dusk and her tears were backlit with the fading sunlight. For me until that moment, the characters in the script had remained sort of puppets and I was the puppet master, but finally watching them, they started to feel like real-life humans. They were so powerful they blew away all the anxieties that I had about working on my first film. But they felt so rich and happy in that moment, in an odd way, that I knew I could make a film. Of course the best take was that scene we never rolled on during the rehearsal.
I was blessed with a wonderful crew who didn't reject my request to shoot that way, not knowing whether she would come out, rolling with two cameras, etcetera. You have to prepare and then be ready for that kind of improvisation.
That for you was a turning point as a director?
It gave me true confidence.