Shinji Aoyama

24 October 2005
picture: Shinji Aoyama


Making quite a splash in the mid-1990s with that decade's original teens-on-a-rampage film Helpless, Shinji Aoyama has carved out a fascinating career for himself. Vacillating between taut genre exercises like An Obsession, Embalming, and Two Punks, and more austere arthouse fare such as Eureka, To the Alley, and Desert Moon, Aoyama has never been anything less than idiosyncratic.

With two new films coming out that neatly fall on each side of that divide (the socio-critical whodunit Lakeside Murder Case and the baffling but fascinating Eli Eli Lema Sabachtani?) and a slew of his previous works arriving on DVD courtesy of Artsmagic, there is no better to time for a talk with Shinji Aoyama.

In preparation for this interview, I went back and watched a number of your older films, in trying to find a singular theme that spanned through them. I think that one thing that stood out is how important the script is in all of your works. For example, in Eureka, while there is great attention given to what is naturally occurring on screen, there is little doubt that everything has been precisely scripted. With this said, how do you come up with scripts: from the inception of the idea through the actually writing of it?

First, in so far as the story is concerned, I make a point of always thinking about what might work from my daily life, or from the world around me. Back in the day, I would read the newspaper. Now, I go online to read the news. From these sources I look for incidents in society that might work, both big and small, and collect them. From there, I think about how I can turn these incidents into something else. If I can turn it into a story I figure out how I can mix in several things together, chop them up. And it might turn out that the current incident might not be as interesting as figuring out what happened before this incident or what happens after. If you follow people around these incidents, then you have a story, I think.

So, figuring out the story is the first step. Next is writing the script. But oftentimes, I'll just come up with a story and have a lot of them lying around until I feel like approaching one of them. Then the producer might ask me, "So do you have anything that you want to make?" And then we'll find out what sort of budget he has: ¥100,000,000 or 200,000,000 - or even ¥50,000,000. So if he only has X amount of money I'll give him this idea; but if he has Y amount of money then I'll give him that idea. For me, this is what helps choose what story we'll end up making. So, I'll have many ideas brewing, but what I set out to do depends ultimately on the budget.

So how do you get from idea and script to choosing a location? Because it seems like your locations are deliberately and well chosen: for example the broken-down pachinko parlor in Wild Life, the large parking lots in both that film and Eureka etc.

First, I have the script, right? And then I consult with the location manager about what I want. He then goes off by himself and finds places that he thinks will work. He then comes back and shows me what he's found. From there, I choose what I like. In fact, in Wild Life, this was a really time consuming activity but some of the locations that we found were so great, that I actually went back and rewrote some scenes to take advantage of what we had.

Additionally, when we were making the film, I was really aware of continuity issues and, for example, when we were shooting in the parking lot, I wanted to be able to see everything in surroundings. Nearby we found some emergency stairs from which we could view the whole scene and I liked what I saw, so we used it. But really, it was in large part thanks to the help of my film crew.

When you search for a location do you have the film's 'thematic' or 'metaphoric' issues in mind? Because in Eureka, circularity seems to be one of the basic thematic and metaphoric images, both in terms of narrative structure but also in some of the physical activity on screen. Did you have this in mind when you searched for locations?

Actually, no. We only bring the actors to the set and in front of the camera just before we shoot, so no one really knows what we are going to do. That said, I am constantly thinking about how I want to shoot the scenes, particularly once I am on location. For example, in Eureka, the use of 'circles' was not premeditated. When we started with the scene of the bus incident in the parking lot and the circles there, and then later with the young man going in circles on the bike, and then at the end with the helicopter shot - it just sort of came about.

But when you look at the structure of Eureka - the fact that it starts with what we discover is the very end of the movie - there is, by default, a circular structure to the movie.

Yeah. The story itself returns to where it began.

picture: scenes from 'Eureka'

When you were a college student you were an assistant director to Kiyoshi Kurosawa right?


Would you say that he was a big influence on you?

Yes, definitely. When I was a freshman in college arguably his most important film The Excitement of the Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girl had just come out. I saw it and, let's see, I'd say that for everyone that was interested in film and was in college at that time - which means that they been born between the years of 1962 and 1965 - found it to be one of the most important films for them. But, keep in mind that it was the first time we'd ever seen a film like that done in Japan. So yeah, I'd say he was a big influence.

But continuing on this point, I can see elements of Kurosawa's filmmaking in your filmmaking style: in the framing, staging of the action, and cutting. What I find interesting is that in a 'Hollywood' movie, what you see on screen is all of the world that you're supposed to know about. But in both yours and Kurosawa-san's films, there just doesn't appear to be a frame. One gets the sense that the film world on screen is completely open and that your camera just happens to be pointing in this one direction, catching whatever action is going on at that time. And there are numerous examples of this in Eureka, but what do you think of this and is this also an influence from Kiyoshi Kurosawa?

For the average filmmaker, a lot of these choices could just be called style. For Kurosawa-san, I don't know, but for me, it's not style. I choose the camera and actors placement based on some idea of spatial distance; and that distance is really all I am thinking about. Then my cinematographer, Masaki Tamura, and I sit and talk about this over many nights and many drinks and try to figure out what would work best on screen and what we want to show. And that's really it; together the two of us figure this out.

Actually, what's funny is that Tamura-san and I get along very well, but there's a 25-year age difference between us! With Tamura-san being older than me! But notwithstanding this, we're really on the same wavelength and often come to the same conclusion.

Another thing I should mention are the other two stages of our planning. First, we decide where our position will be and then we decide where the actors will be. And what I mean by our position is in reality something a little removed from where Tamura-san and I are: from where Tamura-san is with the camera and where I am standing watching the action. But the important thing, I feel, is that this position, which is a little removed, is where the actors' action should be and where they could move freely.

Do you use a television monitor on set?

Of course I look at one occasionally, but that doesn't really have any influence. Because I find that I am usually watching the actors directly when I call action or cut; I'll have the monitor down here, but I'll be looking over there at the actors. But by doing so, you're actually helping to separate yourself from the confines of the camera. By being divorced from the camera and looking directly at the actors, you're actually creating a new angle to watch the film from. And if you continually do this kind of thing you actually start to relinquish some of the control on the frame. But that's not a bad thing, because having too much control isn't really that interesting in my mind. By adding all of these things up you somehow manage to create a world that is larger than the frame.

In Hollywood, at least, the use of 'standard coverage' (the use of insert shots of specific information for detailing combined with wide, medium and close-up shots) is business as usual. In Wild Life, you use a combination of this type of shooting with wide and long takes, do you think you'll return to this type of shooting style?

Coverage... Well, I'd say that you do whatever you can that best 'helps' get your idea across. You can take a shot and use it over and over again - like covering two different people who are talking - and that's fine. But basically arbitrarily choosing to use a shot at one point, at a certain time, doesn't make sense.

picture: scenes from 'Wild Life'

In Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark the popular belief is that there are no cuts in it, but that's not true. He just zooms in on a painting or tilts down towards the floor before reframing for the next shot.

That's true.

One of the things that stands out about Kiyoshi Kurosawa's films is his fantastic sense of internal pacing. In fact, determining the pace of a movie and successfully executing it is one of the most important and difficult things that a director has to do. I'm not talking about the pacing that comes through the editing of the film, but the invisible, rhythmic pace that exists in a movie. How would you say that you discover and execute the pace in your movies? How do you find the courage to do longer takes considering this?

Wow, well, that's... That's probably best described as a 'feeling' or a 'sense' of what works. I know that it's the same for Kiyoshi Kurosawa as for me: we really like music. If you don't have rhythm then you can't do it.

In dance, choreography is decided in part by the rhythm in the music: [Hits his leg keeping time] 1-2-3-4. 1-2-3-4. It's really very similar to films, I think. If you suddenly speed up and then abruptly slow down - if you're experimenting - you begin to discover what works best for the scene that you are shooting. If you do this on location you find what works best, I think.

In a sense it's really in a willingness to experiment more on location that you discover what works best, right?


In Wild Life, there's that moment when the detective and our main character are meeting at a kid's playground and the detective arbitrarily turns on the water fountain when he's angry, for no logical reason. But the illogical reason is that it fills out the pace of the scene, I think.

Definitely. And at first he's hanging out in the sandbox like some little kid and then he gets up, walks away and then goes to the drinking fountain... and whatever. The most important thing is that I don't want him to stop. It's like those people who fidget a lot, bounce their legs, play with a pen etc; it's subconscious activity, but it's important because we don't want to give him time to think. It's hard to describe but it's activity that's important to him as a character. And at the end when he turns on the drinking fountain it's subconscious behavior that supports what he's saying.

I mean, it doesn't have a literal meaning when you watch it - and I was looking for something that didn't have a literal meaning to it when we were shooting this on location - but I think that within me... it has some sort of reasoning.

So you did tell the actor to do those things, right?

I didn't explain it directly to him, but... you know.

I want to shift over to some more technical questions, if you don't mind. In your long takes, if it's outdoors during the day you're not necessarily using lights are you?


But what about doing the sound? Your soundperson must be in hell!

Yeah, that's true...

You use wireless microphones?

Yes and booming too. We use a combination of both.

What about when the camera is spinning around and around? I take it the boom operator is hiding behind the camera?

Yeah. In fact, in that situation the boom operator is running behind the camera.

What about shots that go from inside to outside, or in cramped spaces?

It's a combination of wireless mics and the boom operator hiding himself. In fact, there's this scene in Wild Life with a long take, where there's a chase outside and we're following a group of chinpira and their yakuza boss go after our main character and he gets separated from them. All of a sudden we hear the sound of a gun go off in another location and we run over with this character to check it out - and it turns out to be nothing. This long take was super difficult to do and it required us to use wireless microphones and two boom operators with two sets of transmitters going to two DATs!

Yeah, that's one of the things that's so interesting about your films, what you see or what you think you're seeing doesn't necessarily match. There's a lot of trickery in your stuff. It's like a game.

Especially in Wild Life.

And then there's that crazy dolly shot in Wild Life in the pachinko parlor where our main character leaves in the beginning of the shot and almost magically reappears at the end of it. It seems to defy the laws of physics.

Yeah. That's a cool shot, I'm glad you liked it.

I read an interview with you about An Obsession where you said this film was a response to all of the problems that you felt existed in Japan at the time. That something strange was going on there and that you wanted to add that feeling to the movie. Do you still feel that something is strange in Japan?

Well, I am responding to the world I live in. So if there's something funky that's going on in society then I am probably adding that to works I am doing. Or more correctly, it's influencing the work I am choosing to do.

So what's the story behind your choosing Lakeside Murder Case?

Oh, well, for that one... there's a more basic reason behind it. I'm focusing on family. In fact, this is the same as with Eli, Eli, Lema Sabachtani? and Desert Moon, too. In a family you have a wife, husband, and kids - or mother, father, and kids, if you prefer. One thing I am trying to illustrate, or talk about, is the separation that occurs between these elements.

In Eureka, I am essentially telling the story of a horrible event. In Desert Moon, I am talking about the tribulations of a well-respected IT industry boss's downward spiral. So this time out I wanted to talk about whether parents really understand their kids and vice-versa. That's really the most basic thing the film is about.

picture: scenes from 'An Obsession', 'Lakeside Murder Case' and 'Desert Moon'

It seems that this might be becoming a familiar theme in Japan right now with films like Battle Royale among others. Shifting gears, do you find yourself attracted to dark subject matters?

No, definitely not. Actually I love humorous things.


On Eureka, the producer asked me to do something with a more serious tone to it.

You realize that your reputation is towards dark things, right?

[Laughs] You know, in truth, I really like stupid things - or stupid subject matter, if you prefer. In fact, I would love to do a stupid film. I think that you can find a lot of truth through humor. Yeah, I'd really like to do something like that.

Maybe this will be your next film? In fact, what is your next project?

Well, every time I set out to make a new movie this is my plan, but it never seems to pan out. I wonder why... I mean, I want to make a comedy or something, but it never happens. I wonder if there's something in me that's stopping this?

This might be a strange question, but what is a 'movie' in so far as you are concerned? Or more plainly, what constitutes a 'movie?'

Well if you mean, why do I make a movie? Because it's my job. Hmm... Well, I guess a movie is life. But, well, it's really hard to define, but a movie is something more than life. It captures something that you can't really put in words.

Just a second ago we were talking about making a comedy. So if we look at an old silent film, like a Buster Keaton comedy, he'll be running and running and running... and then he'll do something and the audience will laugh. But he'll be looking around surprised as if nothing happened. And then he'll walk home and then his house will fall down, but he'll be still standing and is totally fine. And the thing is, it's not funny if you read it or have it told to you, but when you watch it is very funny - even now - and that's important.

I think you can start there with why movies are something special, because they can do something beyond words. In a way I think that what I just described is something that was as true in the 19th century as in the 20th century. This is what I think is the essence of a movie.

Do you have any last comments?

This might be connected to what we were just talking about... But... you know what? Let's stop here. This conversation could just continue to get bigger and bigger... and I might not even know what I am talking about. So let's stop here.