Nobuhiro Yamashita

7 March 2007
picture: Nobuhiro Yamashita

by ,

Nobuhiro Yamashita may be known as a master of the slacker comedy, his biggest success was a film about kids who actually went out and achieved something - even if it was just learning how to play a three-chord rock song. Linda, Linda, Linda also marked the entry into the world of professional filmmaking for this former wunderkind of the Osaka indies scene. He left Osaka for Tokyo and is now thoroughly part of the industry as a director-for-hire. Yet, Yamashita's films remain uniquely his own, as his latest effort The Matsugane Potshot Affair (Matsugane Ransha Jiken, 2007) attests. Midnight Eye caught up with the idiosyncratic filmmaker at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, where he has been a fixture ever since his first film Hazy Life (Donten Seikatsu, 1999) competed in the festival's Tiger Award competition seven years ago.

Linda, Linda, Linda was a big success for you and some would say something of a departure. How did the film get off the ground initially?

There is something called the Angel Award in Japan, which is a kind of scriptwriting competition. Someone sent in the original screenplay for Linda, Linda, Linda and won first prize. That got the attention of the producer Mr. Hiroyuki Negishi, who in turn got me involved.

The film seems to have been made in a more accessible style than your previous work. Was that intentional?

The subject is high school girls who start their own cover band. However you twist or turn that, it's always going to be entertaining. In that situation I figured we might as well dive in head first and go for an easy-to-digest style for the film. When the project first came to me, it was tilted even more toward pure entertainment and I did make some changes to it. Quite a lot of changes, in fact.

The film was essentially a job-for-hire for you, then?

Exactly, the producers came to me with the project.

How did the Korean influence find its way into the film?

That was my contribution to it. Once we found Bae Doo-na through a casting call, I became more and more excited about the idea. Everyone in Japan knows the music the girls play in the movie and they know the band The Blue Hearts. No Japanese person will have any trouble understanding the story because of that. Bringing in this Korean girl who hardly speaks Japanese and of course has no idea who The Blue Hearts are, that gives the story a different turn and lends it its own originality. It makes it a less obvious story, which wouldn't have happened if she hadn't been there.

What are your own memories of The Blue Hearts? Any waves of nostalgia when you hear Linda Linda?

Well, when the song came out I was actually still in elementary school. It's definitely nostalgic, but it's not connected to my teenage years.

There is clearly a tone of nostalgia to the film. The way of life that you show feels like a mixture of today and the memories of your own high school years.

Yeah, that's very true. It is a combination of how I remember high school and how it is these days.

A lot of films about rock music or about specific bands are made by people who love that music, like Tomorowo Taguchi's Iden & Tity or Takanori Jinnai's Rockers. How did the Blue Hearts element find its way into the film?

The Blue Hearts were already a part of the story when the producer came to me with the offer. What was great for me was that I got to discover what a great band they were. Listening to their songs over and over while making the film and watching the actresses getting to grips with the music, I really came out of it with a huge amount of admiration for The Blue Hearts.

Was the band itself involved in the film in any way?

No, not at all. I never even got to meet any of them.

Still, you cast the lead singer's brother as the girls' teacher.

Yeah, but that's more of a coincidence. When The Blue Hearts broke up they all went their separate, unique ways. One of them even joined a bizarre religious sect, I believe. The band is gone now and I don't think they'll ever get together, so there was no intention on my part to try to make that happen with this film.

Last time I interviewed you, you were still living in Osaka and you said you were seriously considering moving to Tokyo, because that's where the work is. You're based in Tokyo now and you're part of the film business. Can we say that the three films you've made since then, Linda Linda Linda, Cream Lemon, and The Matsugane Potshot Affair, are all the result of that move?

I guess you can. I'm in Tokyo now, but I still find Osaka a much easier place to live in. I feel much more relaxed and comfortable there. But it's a simple fact that there are no professional film producers in Osaka, whereas Tokyo is full of them and loads of films are shot there as well. Osaka is fine for independent films, but for anything more ambitious than that you need to be in Tokyo, definitely.

From your personal point of view, how different is the experience between making films in Osaka and in Tokyo?

On the films I made after my move to Tokyo, I felt more like the director. I was also being treated as 'The Director', whereas in Osaka I was just one of the guys. I was making films with my friends and a bunch of people I knew. That's the big difference. In Osaka everybody called me 'Nobu' on the set, but in Tokyo I'm 'Mr. Director'.

Cream Lemon was a film that kind of slipped under everyone's radar, at least internationally. It's an adaptation of a hentai manga, albeit a fairly restrained one. How did you get involved in this project?

I shot it in the same year as Linda Linda Linda, about three years ago, after I had just moved to Tokyo. When I came to Tokyo I made up my mind to do completely different things from what I'd done up until then. When that producer brought me Cream Lemon, which is an erotic story about incest, I figured that this would probably be my only chance to make a film like this, so I took it on as a challenge.

picture: scenes from 'The Matsugane Potshot Affair'

How about The Matsugane Potshot Affair? Is that once again a situation where a producer hires you to work on a project?

There was actually a project that a producer wanted to develop based on a novel. But this producer really wanted to work with me, so he told me "Okay, we have this project, but you're free to change it any way you like." In the end we sort of met halfway: the film is half me and half the original novel.

So at least there is still space within the professional film business to develop your own stories and work in your own ideas?

I've been lucky so far in terms of the producers I've worked with. They have all pretty much left me to my own devices and given me the room to put my own ideas into the film. I've been able to turn each of these three films into personal films, in that sense.

At the moment you feel comfortable in this position?

Yes, but these past three years the films I've made have always been 'based on' something. I do feel that it's about time that I do something that I'm completely involved in from scratch. If not, I don't know if I will continue to feel so comfortable for very long.

There are three people credited for the screenplay of Matsugane Potshot Affair, including yourself and your regular writing partner Kosuke Mukai. Your partnership goes back quite a few years. Could you explain how that collaboration between the two of you functions?

I've known Mukai for more than ten years, from back in the days when we were still making student films in Osaka. I must say, we've both developed since then on every film we've worked on. In the old days there wasn't much distinction between who was the director and who was the scriptwriter. We did both. Today it's stricter: I'm the director, he's the screenwriter. It's clearly separated.

He came with you when you moved to Tokyo?

Actually, he went there a year before me.

I assume the town of Matsugane in the new film is fictional.

It is. We made it up ourselves. The original novel, which is by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, is about twin brothers and that is basically the only thing we kept. When Mukai and I got involved, we decided to expand it into a portrait of a whole town.

There is an animal motif running through the film. Matsugane, as a sign says, is 'The town of the wild boar legend', and then there are the mice in the attic of the police station.

In the case of the mice it's sort of a statement about the townspeople, about the way they live and behave. They're also symbolic of the protagonist's mental state, since neither we nor he are actually ever sure if those mice are really there or whether he is just hearing things. As for the boars, when we were location scouting we found a dead boar lying in the road in front of a shop, so we figured there must be a lot of boars around and wrote it into the script.

Sounds like there was a kind of Shohei Imamura influence at work with those mice.

Yes, I was very aware of Imamura when I made the film, I must admit.

But I assume it's a coincidence that the film is released in the year of the boar?

Entirely. (laughs)

The casting is quite atypical, especially Hirofumi Arai and Tomokazu Miura. It's very rare to see them as a shy young man and a no-good layabout father.

You could say that it's a challenge in a way, but that's not really how I approached it. I believe that if you use these people in an unusual way, that mismatch can create a sort of grotesque effect. I think that's mostly what I was looking for in this case.

Your films have been shown at film festivals since the start of your career, right from your first feature film Hazy Life. I know that for a while already you've been very close to having a film selected for one of the three major festivals, especially Cannes, and that every time it was only at the very last moment that you didn't make the grade. I can imagine that this must be somewhat disheartening. Is there a desire on your side to make it into the top festivals?

Actually, I can't really imagine myself and a film of mine being shown in Cannes, to be honest. It's happened that a producer of one of my films told me "Sorry, it didn't work out in the end", but I always think "That figures." I'm not at all disappointed, because I don't really consider it possible myself. Festivals like Rotterdam sort of agree with me and I feel like I'm in the right place there. But Cannes is another matter entirely.