- 12 April 2005
by Jasper Sharp
The year 2004 was a successful one for Ryuichi Hiroki, with his 2003 film Vibrator picking up prizes left, right and centre, and three new films out in cinemas in Tokyo. Jasper Sharp and interpreter Sharon Hayashi caught up with him in Shibuya just before his latest DV-shot drama, Girlfriend, was released.
Vibrator was voted by the critics of Eiga Geijutsu as the best Japanese film of 2003, and it has been picking up prizes at film festivals all over the world. What do you think has been the reason for such a reaction?
I really don't know. There aren't many films about Japanese women. Maybe men like it because it's a description of a woman's world.
What attracted you to the original novel on which Vibrator was based?
It was a very simple story about a woman's inner emotional world, and it was not dependent on her relationships with other people. It was not so much that it was a story about a woman, or the story of a man. It could have been about either. Really what attracted me was just the straightforward way in which the woman was described in the story. This was the most appealing thing.
Did you make any changes from the book?
The last scene and the scene in the dining hall. It was very difficult to put such a simple story into film, because a lot of the book was the woman's internal thoughts. I was able to put these into the film by using a voiceover monologue and onscreen text, which was the idea of the scriptwriter Haruhiko Arai.
One of the most notable aspects of the film has to be the powerful central performance by Shinobu Terashima. Can you tell me a little about this actress and how you came to work with her?
Actually I couldn't find anyone who wanted to take the part at first, and then, one day, I was having coffee in a friend's coffee shop and, by coincidence, I saw her sitting in the corner. So I asked my friend, "Who is that woman? I need someone just like her to play the role". I asked my friend to introduce us, and I gave her the script, and she read it. She basically understood it and really identified with the character, so I knew she was the right person. I knew of her because of her reputation as a stage actress. I'd heard her name but at the time I didn't recognize that it was the same person. But this was more down to me… Even if it was Brad Pitt sitting there, I'd have no idea what Brad Pitt looked like.
Stylistically the film is very different from anything else I have seen recently. How did the use of digital video influence the shooting?
One of the reasons we used DV was because we were shooting for a really long time, especially the landscape scenes, so it was basically more economic. Because I filmed it as a road movie, I really wanted to capture those chance encounters of the things that happened on the road.
Because it was basically an hour and a half of speaking scenes in the script, I decided from the very beginning to make heavy use of the ambient sounds. I really wanted to emphasize the sounds that came into the truck cab from the outside world, and in a related way, to emphasize the vibrations of her cell-phone, and to express things through these sounds.
Tokyo Trash Baby was one of the first films I can recall from Japan shot on digital video and released theatrically. Now this seems to be becoming quite a normal occurrence in Japanese cinema. As a director who has been at the forefront of using the technology to make very different kinds of film than were possible for example 5 years ago, on balance do you think this is a good thing or a bad thing?
Probably what divides a pro and an amateur can be seen through the use of sound. There are a lot of films shot on DV but a lot of filmmakers aren't so careful about how they use music and how they mix the sound. I think of images and sound as two completely different things, so when people are shooting nice images, then that's fine, but then they often forget to pay as much attention to the sound afterwards. For me it's a two-step process.
This year saw the release of another of your films, Silent Big Man (Kikansha Sensei). It seems a little different from your other work. Is this your first mainstream film?
This was shot on 35mm, because we had a lot more money. This film is set in 1954, and we really wanted to show the period detail. Actually it's not my first mainstream feature. In 1995 I made a film called Gerende ga Tokeruhodo Koishitai [trans: I want to make love until the ski slopes melt], which we shot in New Zealand.
Silent Big Man is the story of a mute teacher who goes to a school on an island in the Inland Sea where, despite not being able to speak, he earns the respect of the local children. I was approached to do the project, so it didn't originate with me.
You also recently made Girlfriend, which was shot on digital video. It was produced as part of a similar series to the Love Cinema films, for which you made Tokyo Trash Baby.
It was made for a different company than Tokyo Trash Baby, though. It's part of a series known as the Love Collection, with films from 5 directors, including Hiroshi Ando, who made Blue, and Kazuyoshi Kumakiri.
You began your career in the pink industry, working for Genji Nakamura's production company during the 1970s. What were those days like?
At this time the big major studios such as Toho or Shochiku weren't really shooting very much, so the only way I could participate on a film set was to get into pink film.
At the time the Athenée Français were holding film classes, so I went there with a couple of friends. One of the teachers there was the great poet and experimental filmmaker Shuji Terayama, who we already admired at the time because of experimental films like Throw Away Your Books and Go Out into the Streets (1971). We all went there to listen to him talking about film, thinking that we were going to hear him deliver these great pearls of wisdom, but all he did was just stand there mumbling. No one could really hear what he was saying, so everyone used to crowd around the front row expecting some sort of great epiphany, but all he did was grumble about things that had pissed him off that week.
Teryama was very interested in experimental films, like Warhol's famous Sleep (1964), so he would talk a lot about those sorts of films at the time. He really had no influence on me whatsoever. I was influenced by his theatre performances and the fact that he was a filmmaker, but not by the actual man himself.
We also heard we could get to watch French films for free at the Athenée Français, so that was another reason we went there. They never played with Japanese subtitles either, because they were screened there basically for students who wanted to learn French, and I don't speak a word of French!
When I first started wanting to make films, I wrote a pink script and took it to Okura Productions and told them I wanted to make it. They asked if I had any experience, and I just said, "No". They told me basically I had to start as an assistant director, so they started me off in this way, working on really boring films. During this time I met someone who was working for Nakamura, and he introduced me. The original script never got made. It wasn't a proper pink film anyway, and I'd hate to see it now.
What was the atmosphere around the pink film world at the time?
It was terrible as an assistant director. Nakamura told me to just try it out for three years, and if I wasn't directing by then, I should just quit. I got lucky, and got my first chance to direct within three years.
Being an assistant director was terrible though. There's not enough staff and you are not allowed to sleep, and you get blamed for everything that goes wrong. You do all the shitty work and you think, "Well, I could make a better film than all these directors." But then, my debut film was terrible, and I thought I had no talent and I should probably quit.
After this failure I went back to being an assistant director again, writing scenarios and stuff like that, and didn't think I wanted to ever direct another film ever again. Then I made this series of three gay pink films beginning with Our Season (Bokura no Jidai, 1982), which got a really good response from other people, which gave me more confidence. A lot of my pink films were quite well received by the critics, for example, SM Classroom (SM Kyoshitsu, 1986).
These three gay films came right at the beginning of gay pink film production. What kind of cinemas did these play in?
At the time I made Our Season, there were just three specialist theatres: two in Ueno and one in Osaka. Gay pink began with normal pink directors such as Yojiro Takita, Genji Nakamura and me, making these films. I made them for the company ENK.
When I made them, I made them in the same way as I would make normal pink films, though maybe they have a theme that's slightly different. Our Season, for example, is about these two gay men who want to have a child together, and they meet this woman who is pregnant with someone else's child, and she gives it to them until one day, she turns round and says she wants her child back. Ren Osugi played in this film.
Ren Osugi also played in I Am an SM Writer. This again deals with a woman's perspective, but the setting is in the world of sado-masochism, which I think is a very male-oriented film genre. The film was sold as an accessible and fairly mainstream comedy drama in Japan. What sort of reaction did it get and why didn't you make it as a pink film?
I intended to make this film about a loser guy and a more serious, capable woman, which was the main theme of a lot of my films. I was aiming to make something that was like a pink film but that could be shown in mainstream theatres. It was amazingly popular. I really wanted to make a comedy film. I think comedy is really the flipside of serious sex. I wanted to make a film that people wouldn't necessarily approach as a pink film, because of these comedy elements. Most people can't go to pink theatres, for various reasons, so I wanted to do things the other way round - to bring pink film to the people!
I am really influenced by John Cassavetes, so when we were making the film we spent a lot more time on the performances than for a normal pink film. We went to this house and rehearsed for around a day and a half, and then spent about four days shooting. We had a lot of fun making it.
When it played at a festival in Canada, it was accused of being violent against women, even though it was done as a kind of fantasy. However, there were quite a lot of women into SM there who really enjoyed it. In 2002, I also made A Barber's Sorrow, which was another SM comedy about a masochistic barber.
Who was Go Ijuin?
It was a pen name used by people working at Nakamura Productions in the 1980s, which I sometimes used. I was behind the first three Go Ijuin films. When I used this pen name, it gave me a lot more freedom to do what I wanted. I also had a lot of fun making up an entire biography for this guy - how he'd traveled through Europe and how old he was. I even gave telephone interviews as him.
The first film I made under the name was like a documentary about this woman who ran an SM club. I was a real culture shock what really went on in there compared with the kind of SM you see in films. This was the real thing. They had a far more radical notion of pleasure than usual people
What attracts you to SM subjects?
You really need to trust someone or love them in order to participate in an SM relationship. That's what really interests me about the subject. The greatest show of love for a masochist male is to get punished or, for example, penetrated by someone. It's something I really don't understand in many ways, though in some ways maybe I do, and I want to understand it more. This kind of extreme love doesn't really exist in reality. It only exists in fantasy. So this is something I want to describe in film.
I am now planning a film about Kitan Club, an old Japanese SM magazine from the 1950s. It was the first magazine of this type. It's going to be the story of the publisher and one of the people who writes stories and does illustrations for the magazine.
How did you make the transition from pink film to mainstream filmmaking at the beginning of the 1990s?
I didn't change so much as the circumstances around me. I don't really care if you label a film like I Am an SM Writer as a pink film, an indie film, a mainstream film or whatever. It's just the film I wanted to make. In that sense there hasn't really been a transformation in my filmmaking. I just want people who don't go to pink theatres to see my work.
So pink filmmaking wasn't so much an apprenticeship for you to move into bigger projects?
The thing I liked about pink films is that you are able to write your own scenarios and make them into films very quickly. But there were also economic restrictions, so you have to shoot everything in four days and there's just never enough money to make the films properly. I don't really make any distinctions between the type of films I make. They're all the same. The budget and production circumstances are the only difference with, for example, a film like Tokyo Trash Baby.
Thematically, your recent films seem to focus on the emotional worlds of young women characters in modern Japan. What attracts you to this subject?
I am not sure if it's the description of a woman's real intentions, but it is true in my recent films I have been telling my stories from a woman's perspective
Do you see any continuum in your move from films made for an adult male audience focusing on women's bodies to films made for a general audience focusing on women's emotional worlds.
Even when I was making pink films, I usually described women who were strong-minded or selfish and there would always be a weak guy who would get tangled up in some situation with them. This sort of relationship is at the core of I Am an SM Writer. Also I like to show women who are really into sensuality and eroticism, and to portray their emotional or sexual journey.
I always tried to describe liking sex and falling in love as two different things. The most common narrative in my films is that a man and a woman meet, they like each other and they fall in love and have sex, and then the woman starts worrying, "Maybe I don't really like this guy." This hasn't changed so much between my pink films and a film like Vibrator.