- 10 March 2004
by Tom Mes
One of the main exponents of a movement of young Osaka filmmakers, Nobuhiro Yamashita has carved a niche for himself with dry comedies about aimless young men trying to find a place for themselves in an absurd society. His debut film Hazy Life immediately gained international attention and acclaim, as did the follow-up No One's Ark. With Ramblers he continues on his chosen path, the end of which looks to be nowhere in sight.
Ramblers is based on a manga by Yoshiharu Tsuge. What was it about Tsuge's work and this specific manga that appealed to you?
I learned about Tsuge and his work through an earlier film adaptation of his work. I started reading his manga after I saw that film, before that I didn't know him. I'm especially attracted to his sense of humour. His stories are usually very dark, almost depressing at times, but within that darkness he uses a lot of humour.
Did the fact that the main characters of Ramblers are filmmakers make this manga specially appealing to you?
Actually, they weren't filmmakers in the original, but manga artists. So I adapted it to my world the way Tsuge originally wrote it about his world.
In your previous film No One's Ark the protagonists tried to make money by selling a health drink. In Ramblers the protagonists are independent filmmakers. There is a connection there in that they all live lives that are different from the norm of working in an office for a big company.
I am also a person who chose not to live my life working for a company. I don't have a regular job and I don't have children, so I also chose a different route in life. I don't really consider myself an adult. People sometimes say that filmmakers and artists are very much grounded in everyday life, but I'm not sure if that's true. I'm unable to portray those regular people in my films. It's the people who are different from the norm who interest me, and especially if they don't realise that they are different.
But your characters often give the impression of having made a conscious choice to not live the same life as their parents.
Actually, the main character of my films is always me. The films are made and told from my own point of view. I'm not really so conscious of being different. It's true that I consciously chose to make films instead of having a job, and that my characters make their choices consciously too, but the fact that they deviate from most others is something they're not aware of.
The choice of young people to consciously take a different route in life than their parents has been a recurring motif in Japanese independent films of the last ten years. They express how the burst of the bubble economy has made young people aware of the pointlessness of living their lives in the service of a company. Can we say that your work also expresses this concern?
I'm not consciously trying to make that point, but I make films about people of my own generation, so it finds its way into my films almost automatically.
What did your father do?
He worked in a factory where they made windshields for cars.
At which point did your desire to become a filmmaker start?
While I was in university. I was always interested in cinema, so I decided to go to art school. I was in a couple of bands too, but I wasn't good enough to be a real musician, so I thought the only alternative would be to start making films.
The style of your films is very specific, almost minimalist in a way. There is very sparse camera movement. What's the origin of that style? Does it have something to do with the characters, who don't tend to be very active during the course of a scene?
It's difficult to say. It's not really a theme I intentionally apply. On the one hand there's a financial side to it, I don't have the means to make films on a big scale, so I can't afford audacious camera movements. It also has to do with the characters, as you say. I like to make films about people who move through life at a kind of languid pace, so a somewhat simple visual style is very suitable to showing that.
Are there other filmmakers who have had an influence on that style?
There are so many. Maybe this sounds a bit cocky, though it's certainly not meant that way, but when I was in high school and I saw the films of Takeshi Kitano, my first reaction was: I can do that too. Such a simple style, but still with fascinating results.
A non-Japanese director that I'm reminded of when watching your films is Aki Kaurismäki.
Ah yes. I really like Kaurismäki's films. Especially after my first film Hazy Life, people would constantly compare me to him, even though I wasn't consciously applying that style to my film. I tried to change my style a bit to avoid those comparisons, but clearly I failed (laughs). But I do consider it a compliment these days.
In No One's Ark there are occasional moments of almost surreal absurdity, which are very different from your usual 'simple' style. Why such sudden shifts in style in the middle of a film?
What's important for me is that I keep enjoying making films, so I want to keep trying different things. That also includes ideas that may not seem to fit in with the rest of the film.
How big was the influence of your fellow students at the Osaka Arts Academy? A lot of those students have gone on to become film directors themselves. How did you influence each other?
It's true that many of them have become very interesting filmmakers. I studied their filmmaking styles and the way they approached filmmaking, and those observations certainly had an influence on my style and my way of making films.
How would you describe the atmosphere in university at the time, that interaction between all these people who were so fascinated by cinema?
The school was located in the countryside, quite far from the city. So almost everybody there did nothing but watch, make, read about, and talk about movies. There wasn't much else to do. We would help each other out on our projects all the time. So all we talked about was film, and all the people we talked to were working on films. It felt very natural back then, but now I realise that it was a very special time.
Most of you who continued making films are united in an organisation called Planet Studyo +1. What does this organisation do exactly?
There aren't a lot of people in Osaka who are active in filmmaking, it's a very small community. My friends and I had all made feature films in university, but we had no idea what to do with them and how to get them shown to people. So we all went over to Planet Studyo +1 to ask their advice. Its original function is that of a film archive, so it's not a company. They have a very small screening room, but their function as a film theater is very marginal.
So the place functioned mainly as a kind of meeting point for you as film enthusiasts?
Yes, that's correct. And it still has that function, because younger filmmakers keep coming there. There are editing facilities and some equipment, so newcomers also tend to find their way over there.
Planet Studyo +1 had been in existence for quite some time before you went there, then?
Yes, I believe it was founded in the 1970s. But it has only had that function as a meeting point for young filmmakers for the last ten years or so.
While you were all still in university, your fellow student Kazuyoshi Kumakiri's film Kichiku was selected for the Berlin Film Festival. What kind of influence did that selection have on you? It must have made you realise how big your potential audience was, even for a student film.
Kumakiri was my sempai, he was my senior by two years. The film had quite a big impact in Japan as well. I worked as a crew member on that film, but its style is the polar opposite of mine. Working on Kichiku really helped me develop my own style as a filmmaker. I realised I wanted to make the complete opposite kind of film. As for foreign attention for my own work, that's something I didn't think about at all at the time, even after Kichiku went to Berlin.
Film journalists always like to find movements of filmmakers, to find ties between various directors and see them as a group. Is there something that binds you and those fellow Osaka filmmakers, beyond all coming from the same school?
I think you can see us as a kind of movement. In the first place we all helped out on each other's films and we used the same crew. The styles of our films are very different, from comedies to violent movies, but we still talk about filmmaking today. So, yes, I think you can see us as a kind of group.
One of the common characteristics between the films of you and your colleagues is the presence of actor Hiroshi Yamamoto.
(laughs) Yes, that's true. He used to be a director too and occasionally he would act small parts in other people's films. My film Hazy Life was Yamamoto's first major acting role, and it was while doing that film that he realised that he is really an actor. After Hazy Life the others started casting him in their films as well, or there were some that intentionally didn't cast him because he was too much identified with my film and my style. The last few years he's been getting more and more parts in films, not only in Osaka but also in Tokyo. He's definitely on the move.
He really expresses that oblivious outlook on the world that you described before.
I agree. His features are very Japanese, you almost can't tell from his face what he's thinking or feeling. I like that a lot about him, it makes him really special.
You were invited to film festivals outside Japan immediately with your first film. What kind of influence did that experience have on you?
Nobody really appreciated my work in Japan in the beginning. The only place I would get recognition was in foreign countries. The appreciation in Japan didn't really get any bigger after that either, so when I made my second film I really hoped that it would be seen by foreign audiences again. It's definitely something I kept in mind. I made Hazy Life in the belief that only Japanese people would be able to understand it. That it got such a positive reaction from foreign viewers was very educational to me.
I think it fit into this idea of the 'slacker' that western viewers knew from the films of Richard Linklater. His first film was even called Slacker.
I've heard of the term 'slacker movie', but to be honest, I don't know Richard Linklater or his film. I'll definitely try to check it out.
Are you still comfortable as a filmmaker in Osaka? I can imagine that the lure of Tokyo must be quite strong.
You hit the nail right on the head. My old filmmaking friends were all from Osaka, but now they've all moved to Tokyo. The only people left in Osaka now are those who go around trying to find their own financing in the hope of being able to make another film. I'm the only one of the original group who is still based in Osaka. I am definitely considering moving to Tokyo myself too. In fact, Ramblers might well be my final true Osaka film.