Norio Tsuruta

20 December 2005
picture: Norio Tsuruta

by ,

The obsession with origins and genealogies can be problematic, and is traditionally one of the first steps from appreciation of films to their fetishism. But origins also hold an undeniable fascination, and the release of the clunkily titled DVD Scary True Stories (Honto ni Atta Kowai Hanashi) in November 2005 gives a prime chance to indulge in this vice.

In the 1980s, Japanese Horror was painted in bright streaks of red, spurting from gashing wounds and intestinal spillings, a far cry from the late 1990s films filled with pale young women simply standing there with hair hanging over their face. The shift from bloody spectacle to intense atmospheric tension based on showing less was initiated by a barely-known director originating from Japan's straight-to-video world, usually called V-Cinema. Norio Tsuruta not only turned the horror methodology around by 180 degrees, but also established extremely successful and resilient storylines and iconography, influencing all the big names in Japanese horror film today (yes, all!), and ultimately leading to the worldwide J-horror boom and spate of American remakes. Watching Scary True Stories and Tsuruta's other V-Cinema work is a real deja-vu experience, where storylines, fear-inducing techniques, and images from directors Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Hideo Nakata, and Takashi Shimizu, as well as J-Horror scriptwriting king Hiroshi Takahashi hover in an earlier, ghostlier, and definitely more low-budget incarnation.

Norio Tsuruta has a certain amount of celluloid imprinted from birth - his grandfather headed an exhibition arm of major film studio Daiei, and his brother is a well-known film critic. In this interview he describes the difficulties experienced and avenues taken by a certain generation of Japanese filmmakers, shedding light on how themes, genres, and directors have zigzagged through different sections of the Japanese film industry over the years.

You were quite active in the amateur film scene of Tokyo in the 1980s. Could you talk a bit about your work then?

I had been shooting 8mm films since I was 10, but you couldn't really call them films yet (laughs). All in all, I shot around 20-30 films, each about 5-20 minutes in length, the most well-known of which was a film called Toneriko. That was a vampire story that I shot during my time at university, during the period usually reserved for job searching (laughs). But at that time the Japanese film industry was in the dumps, and there were basically only two avenues to directing films, going into the pink film business or winning a prize at the PIA Film Festival, which would often land you further employment.

Did you go into the video business straight from university?

No, not at all. First I entered a small TV ad agency where I did so-called "production work", meaning I organized the lunch boxes, and other small stuff. They started experiencing financial troubles after I'd been there for only half a year, and since I'd just decided to get married I started to look for a safer job. So I entered a video company that an electronics manufacturer had just set up, as they were looking for people who knew something about film. There I designed jacket covers and organized the subtitling for the western films the company had bought rights for. That had nothing to do with working as a director. The video distribution company Gaga had just started as well, and they had no one with any video business know-how, so they head-hunted me, and since they offered more money, I went there. But I didn't agree with their working conditions and I quit after one year.

I looked for other work and got a job at a video company being set up by a toy manufacturer and at Japan Home Video, both on a contractual basis - I'd had enough of working as an employee. Both were strictly video release work and rights handling.

picture: scenes from 'Kakashi'

If your job was initially something else, how did you come to work as a director at Japan Home Video and make Scary True Stories?

In 1989, Toei had just started their V-Cinema series, and it was a big hit, so everyone wanted to start producing for the video market, Japan Home Video as well. And another regular employee, Atsushi Muroga, started directing. So honestly speaking, I thought: If he can do it, I certainly can too! (laughs). I decided that a modern Japanese ghost story might be interesting, so I researched and found an interesting manga called Honto ni Atta Kowai Hanashi [trans: Scary stories that really happened], went straight to the publisher, asked for the rights, and got permission to shoot. Then I went to Japan Home Video; they liked the idea, and I was given the job of directing, and shot my first film in five years, since my 8 mm films in university.

How much did you have to pay for the rights for filming it?

Well I didn't have any kind of budget for rights, and so I simply asked and got it for free. That's impossible with a large publisher, of course.

And Japan Home Video simply agreed? Were there lots of regular employees that started directing out of the blue?

Yes, there were quite a few, but almost none stuck with it. At the time, video had a very low status, even though some veteran film directors came in after Toei started its high budget V-Cinema line. But Toei had a budget of 60-80 million yen [approx. half a million US$] per film, and Honto ni Atta Kowai Hanashi had a budget of 7 million yen [approx. 60.000 US$] and was shot in seven days, with two to three days per story. Honto ni... sold 7000 tapes, which at the time meant it was a hit. Toei would sell up to 20,000, which was a gigantic hit, but if you compare the expenses you can see that Japan Home Video made a lot of money.

picture: scenes from 'Premonition'

Was there any interference during shooting or planning?

None at all. In that phase of straight-to-video films, they would give you a certain budget, and as long as you didn't go over that, they would let you do what you wanted. I even had control over editing, posters, and jacket-cover design.

Actually they were skeptical at first when I told them I wanted to do a horror story. At the end of the 80s there was an incident in Japan where a man called Tsutomu Miyazaki killed several young girls. The police found thousands of porn and horror videos and manga in his apartment, and that gave horror videos a bad name. They even found several films in the Guinea Pig series, which Japan Home Video had distributed, and Japan Home Video had gotten a lot of heat over it. And first, some thought that horror wouldn't sell if there wasn't a lot of blood and guts, but when they read the script they thought it was really good.

The audience group for V-Cinema is usually termed as males in their twenties or thirties, but Honto ni Atta fell out of that pattern, didn't it?

Oh yes, at the time V-Cinema was mainly action and erotic stories, horror was very rare. I actually got the idea for a horror piece when I talked to a video store employee, and he told that me a kind of documentary on ghosts, Yurei no Meisho Annai ["A Tour of Famous Haunted Places"] was renting really well. Honto ni Atta's audience, from what I heard, was fairly young and mostly female. At the time video stores were very happy with it, and usually it was placed in the same corner as animation and Disney films. There was no age restriction, as there was no gore or anything.

How did your career continue after Honto ni Atta's success?

After directing two follow-ups, the economic bubble burst, and the whole country was experiencing money problems. So the toy manufacturer quit the video business and Japan Home Video turned to adult videos (hard core pornography). I thought of shooting adult video films as well, but my friend said, "You don't have to go that far" (laughs). Then I did two small horror films for a somewhat dubious company, and after that a straight-to-video horror film starring a half-popular idol group, the Giri-Giri Girls, Norowareta Bijotachi [trans: "Cursed Beauties"]. Then I got an offer from Daiei to shoot a film that was similar to Toho's Gakko no Kaidan, which had been a big hit at the time, So I shot Bourei Gakkyu [roughly: "Ghost Class"] in 1996, which was again based on a horror manga, and was my highest budget film to date. After that I planned another film, but there were lots of disagreements with the scriptwriter and the producer, and finally production was stopped. I was shattered and thought I would never direct again, and I actually didn't for the next three years.

picture: scenes from 'Ring 0'

But then came Ring 0...

In 1998 Ring was a big hit, and when I saw it, honestly speaking, I thought "This looks exactly like what I have been doing!", and it was a real shock. It was really exactly like what I had done in V-Cinema, right down to the character of Sadako's way of moving. But I was in a kind of retirement from directing, so I thought, oh well... When Ring 2 was released, I received a call from Ring's scriptwriter Hiroshi Takahashi, who asked if I'd like to direct Ring 0. I hesitated at first, but then I decided to do it. I even started to think I could finally make a living from directing, but that was a mistake (laughs).

Had you met Takahashi before? He had written about your work before and expressed admiration.

In 1994 or 1995, Makoto Shinozaki organized a horror film special at the Athenée Français theater in Tokyo, and also showed Honto ni Atta... I briefly met him there. We also both participated in a round table discussion with Kiyoshi Kurosawa for the magazine Eureka. Apparently, Takahashi really liked my work and had recommended me as a director for the original Ring, but I had only directed V-Cinema at the time, and Hideo Nakata had already done a theatrically released horror film, so they gave him the job.

Where did you get the inspiration for your style? The specific Tsuruta method of horror that is credited with transforming the horror genre in Japan and became known as J-horror? Are there any specific directors or films that influenced you?

I once saw a ghost when I was a child, and that may well be the single biggest influence.

What are your projects at the moment?

I just shot a film called Premonition (Yogen), a fairly big-budget film in which Toho is involved. It's an original story; original stories are becoming easier to film, since you can make a lot of money by selling the story rights, and with all the horror remakes being done in the US, that's what a lot of companies are aiming at.