Shinya Tsukamoto

20 January 2011
picture: Shinya Tsukamoto


The road to bringing a third Tetsuo film to the screen has been a long and rocky one for Shinya Tsukamoto. First launched immediately after the release of Tetsuo II: The Body Hammer in 1993, the idea of Tetsuo III went through many transformations, from a Tarantino-produced, Tim Roth-starring semi-Hollywood production to its current incarnation as a fully Japanese-funded semi-indie.

One thing that never changed was that the third Tetsuo would somehow have an American influence. After September 11 and the Bush/neocon administration provided the original Tetsuo premise of a human weapon of mass destruction with a new topicality and validity, Tsukamoto found his Bullet Man in Tokyo-based American actor/performer Eric Bossick.

As the circle closes with the North-American release of the film, Midnight Eye reunites with Shinya Tsukamoto to discuss Tetsuo: The Bullet Man.

Rumors of a third Tetsuo had been doing the rounds for many years. It's understandable that fans of the original films would want to see a third episode, but how strong has the drive been in you to make a third film?

When I made Tetsuo II back in 1992 and had an international promotion tour the year after, an American producer came to me with the idea of making Tetsuo America. I liked the concept of Tetsuo rumbling in the United States. Since then I'd been seriously considering this idea for 16 years. But every time I tried to make it happen, I ran into obstacles: conflicts of opinions with producers, budget issues, communication problems, and so on. But now I've finally finished this project the ideal way.

The protagonist of Tetsuo: The Bullet Man is half American. Where did this idea originate?

What I was trying to do was not to make another Japanese Tetsuo movie, but to make Tetsuo America happen in the ideal way. Many American producers, including Quentin Tarantino, approached me and I very much appreciate their offers, but I am a very cautious person, maybe too cautious (laughs). As I kept discussing with them I could never be 100% confident that I could make a Tetsuo movie in the States, so I had to turn them down each time. What I eventually decided to do was employ my usual method of filmmaking, which means that I do it by myself, working as the producer, director, screenwriter, director of photography, editor, etc., so that I can make my movie as I believe it should be made. In that sense, this is a Japanese movie but I still meant to make it an American film - except in my own way. So, as my intention was to make an American movie, the protagonist was naturally decided to be an American.

What made you decide to shoot the film in English, even though it is a fully Japanese production?

My original idea was to set this film in a big city in the States, such as New York, where technologies are so advanced and skyscrapers are overwhelming. But when I think about such technologically advanced, cyberpunk cities, I always return to Tokyo, an extreme city that is highly advanced in the scariest way - which is reflected in Blade Runner and William Gibson's novels. Many people across the world are interested in the city itself and its culture, that's why I thought it would be a good idea to choose Tokyo as the stage. I've made two previous Tetsuo films in Tokyo and it's my franchise. I thought it would be great to invite a foreigner as the protagonist to Tokyo. It made sense to me.

Also, there is the traditional story idea of a foreigner coming to Japan falling in love with a Japanese woman, like in The Last Samurai. That came to mind as well. That's why Anthony has a Japanese wife and he himself is half-Japanese, half-American.

The casting of the lead actor was crucial, all the more so because of the American angle. Eric Bossick is a real discovery in the main role, he is able to get across both stillness and pure physicality. How important was it for you to have found him?

Whenever I discussed the idea of Tetsuo America with US producers, they always gave me two conditions: one was to shoot the film in a certain amount of time, and the other condition was to cast someone famous as the protagonist. For me it was really difficult to create a balance between those conditions and my style of making Tetsuo movies. If I were to hire a famous actor, I would need to keep him exclusively for one whole year for the shoot, which means a huge amount of money. It would have been impossible to shoot a Tetsuo movie that way. When I make a Tetsuo movie I don't shoot it in one month. I need to dedicate enough time to the production, and I cannot give up that style. This was one of the main reasons why the film didn't happen with a US producer. It doesn't have to be a big-budget movie, but it has to be done in my style. So I needed to find somebody who could work that way as the lead actor.

After deciding to shoot the film in Tokyo, I set up an audition in Japan. And that's how I met Eric. I didn't reveal much of the plot, but he totally understood the character: he came to the audition in a business suit and with pale-face makeup. And his acting was precise too. Moreover, he had real passion for this project. I met him a couple of times and I knew he was the one. He loves the Tetsuo films, so he could portray a calm guy and at the same time he could enjoy the process of turning into this brutal iron man. Yes, he is a treasure and I hope this film will be a breakthrough for him.

Why would you need such a long time to make a Tetsuo film?

When I shoot a film in a short period of time, I need to have a clear idea from the beginning, and I cannot do this without the help from the real professionals. But when I work with those guys, it's not easy to pursue my creative ideas to the utmost extent, because the goal becomes to proceed with the filmmaking according to schedule. But when I make a Tetsuo film, I keep thinking as I shoot, digging deep for ideas and always coming up with new ones. That's the process necessary to make the film interesting. That's why it takes time. I go back and forth, go around, and gradually get close to what I want to accomplish. I need the organization which allows me to make films this way.

picture: scenes from 'Tetsuo: The Bullet Man'

How about your own character, the villain Yatsu, a.k.a. The Guy? He started out as a very seductive character in the first film, then he became a charismatic cult leader in the second. How, in your eyes, has he aged in Tetsuo: The Bullet Man?

I think the Guy does not age that much (laughs). It's been 20 years, so he's like a member of the Rolling Stones, playing the same music in the same costume but looking older, which is both funny and sad. But now that I look back at the two previous incarnations of the Guy, the first one was an iron-obsessed pervert addicted to car accidents, who doesn't have much purpose. But as he becomes one with Tetsuo, he feels an urge to destroy the city. The second Guy had a clearer goal of destroying the world, and he knew how to do it, leading a group of followers to accomplish his objective. In this film, the Guy has the same kind of character as the second one. He is charmed by the idea of the world's destruction. The protagonists of my films are obsessed with this idea. In the modern cyber world where you don't really feel reality, they are obsessed with feeling extreme reality by being blown apart by the chunk of iron called Tetsuo. This is an idea of self-destruction, which could also lead to the mass destruction. That's the Guy. Maybe he is more suicidal than the previous two. Well, maybe I need to think about this point some more (laughs).

The basic concept of all the Tetsuo films is of a man who turns into a weapon of mass destruction. After 9/11 and the Bush administration, this cyberpunk idea has become very topical again. Were you inspired by these developments in writing and making Tetsuo: The Bullet Man?

I think that's a very fundamental question. Difficult to answer, actually. This was partly why I changed the setting of this film to Tokyo from the original idea of an American city. Before 9/11, I really intended to make this film in the US. But after what happened, if I would bring such a destructive character like the Guy to an American city, I thought it would become something else, it could seem more like a shallow idea. It would be different from what I wanted to portray in terms of the subject matter, such as modern city life and its reality, as destroying a city now carries such a heavy meaning. So I thought that having my characters destroy an American city was not something I wanted to do. Instead, I've chosen to bring down my own city, with myself and my people in it. It's still a crime, but it's my own issue. It makes much more sense to me. Another thing is Osama bin Laden. This might not be appropriate, but I sometimes imagine his face. What did his face look like when he was destroying cities and civilizations? When I portrayed the character of the Guy, this is one of the thoughts that came to my mind. There is something crossing over between Bin Laden and the Guy, in a sense. Again I don't think I would have brought this image to the film if it were set in an American city. In any case, my theme for this film is the uncertainty of the reality of the modern city and the violence needed to make things feel real. In order to focus on these issues, the cyberpunk city of Tokyo is the best location.

The desire for revenge seems to play a large role too, especially in the character of Yuriko, the wife.

That really is another fundamental theme of this film. If something like that would happen to me, would I take revenge? I'm afraid I would. But I also fear the aftermath of my revenge. If my son were to get killed, I might take revenge in three seconds (laughs). I mean it's such a heavy issue, although in this film it is not too realistic since this is a sci-fi movie. Anyway the question is, when you lose the most important thing, can direct revenge be justified? That's the case of America. They got damaged and took their revenge. But their power for revenge may have destroyed something more. I have to ask myself if that can be justified. There is no correct answer to this. During production of the film, I kept asking this question. When you feel an urge for vengeance, what would you do? I can't give an answer, but still I am asking this question through this film.

There is a strong sense of longing for his mother in the character of Anthony. What made you decide to give him this Oedipal complex?

During my discussion with American producers for the project, many of them told me the previous two films are interesting, but they also told me that they could not understand what makes the protagonist turn into metal. So I needed a rational form of storytelling for the American Tetsuo. A mother is such a powerful figure, like the earth or the whole universe from which you came. Mother means a lot to me as well. And for the protagonist, his mother is not entirely human, a fact which makes him ask himself: who am I? What am I? That is his confusion and such confusion is something shared by people living their modern lives in urban cities. I thought this is a simple and clear idea for this film. My own mother has not been doing very well lately, and maybe the film reflects this as well. I think it's also shown in my previous films such as Nightmare Detective 2. In any case, I think this premise really works clearly to make the protagonist ask about his fundamental existence, which is one of the main themes of this film.

Your vision of Tokyo and life in the city doesn't appear to have changed much since Tetsuo II: The Body Hammer.

In Tetsuo I and II, Tokyo Fist, and Bullet Ballet, my characters are struggling in the city of Tokyo. From Vital, my interest went more toward the inner side of human beings, and at the same time to the natural side of the world. I really want to make a film which explores that natural side of the world to an extreme extent, but so far I haven't had a chance to do so. When I can finally make that film, I think my perspective will change, but right now I am still at a point before that.

In that sense, my view of Tokyo hasn't changed. Before I reach nature, there are still some things I want to do. Personally, I've always had mixed emotions towards the city and life in it, and I've been dealing with such issues as the relationship between man and its cities and the uncertainty of the reality in such an extreme way that I almost had a nervous breakdown. But after my son was born, I lost that nervousness. However, when I look around me, the city hasn't changed and my issues still mean something out there. I want to move on to my nature film soon, then look at the city again and find out how my view will have changed. I might have been able to get to my nature idea right after Vital, but I wasn't entirely satisfied with that film and I've therefore been working with the same concepts on the films I made after that. I still want to start with that nature idea, but I know it will be an expensive project. Looking at the current economical situation it doesn't seem easy (laughs).

picture: scenes from 'Tetsuo: The Bullet Man'

In addition to continuing the Tetsuo saga, this film also seems to follow up on certain motifs from your other recent work, including Vital and Haze. What are your thoughts on this?

That is a very good point. To tell the truth, when I made Vital, I wasn't very successful in dealing with these motifs, which are very dear to me. It's about the city and humanity, the uncertainty of the reality, and the relationship between body and mind. I tried working on the same themes with Haze and Nightmare Detective. And with this film Tetsuo: The Bullet Man, again I try to take them on. I've been facing these issues on my latest films, and in that sense, Tetsuo: The Bullet Man is in the tradition of the Tetsuo franchise in terms of story, but thematically it's closer to my other recent films.

How big a challenge was it for you and the actors to make the film entirely in English?

Actually I realized how big this challenge was after I had shot the film (laughs). Before the shoot, I knew it wouldn't be easy because I am not a native English speaker, but still, I've seen many English language films, and I can tell good acting from bad in those. I've been developing this English-speaking Tetsuo film idea for more than 10 years, too. So I thought we would be able to express the emotions and nuances trough the English dialogue in the film. But when we actually finished shooting, we understood what kind of a challenge it had been. We realized it's really difficult when it gets down to small nuances. I wish I myself could have practiced more before we started shooting.

The lead actress Akiko Monou was really trying to face this tough challenge as well. Next time I will be more careful (laughs). It was difficult to ask a native about detailed nuances, which are very important for me. Before the shoot I thought it would be an interesting challenge, but I quickly realized it is very a serious challenge (laughs).

This film depends more on dialogue and plotting than the first two Tetsuo films. How did this change come about?

Again, this project started as an American film. When we were developing it with US producers, what they said was that the previous Tetsuo films are interesting, but that they are a bit too absurd, story-wise, which is not easy for the American audience. But when we exchanged ideas on how to make a more rational Tetsuo film, I wasn't really convinced with their plots and premises. So I needed to come up with my own rational Tetsuo idea. In any case my basic goal this time was to make this film for a broader audience. So I wanted to write an accessible story without losing the fundamental Tetsuo concept. Previous Tetsuo films have less dialogue, but I wrote more this time because I wanted to make this film easier to follow.

Do you feel people need to know the first two Tetsuo films to appreciate Tetsuo: The Bullet Man?

No, you don't have to watch the previous films, although I want everybody to watch them, of course (laughs). Tetsuo: The Bullet Man is the integration of the Tetsuo films, but it also should work as an introduction to the franchise. If the audience watch Tetsuo: The Bullet Man and like it, I hope they will go back to watch Tetsuo II and Tetsuo I, going deeper into Tetsuo's world (laughs). You don't have to go the other way around.

After finally making Tetsuo: The Bullet Man, do you feel that you are now completely finished with the world of Tetsuo?

Well, in terms of the theme of the film, such as the uncertainty of consciousness, I've been dealing with this on the previous Tetsuo films, on Vital, etc. But I believe this will be the last film for me to deal with those issues. This time I'm also going beyond and I try to deal with the idea of the fear of war, which I think is a present threat in our society. But I am not going to pursue those issues any further in my future films. If I were to make another Tetsuo film, it would be in a different tone, a simpler film, possibly without the Guy, which could be set in America. That could be a fun film to make. But in any case I don't have to go deeply into the subject matter of the past Tetsuos any more.