- 15 June 2005
by Tom Mes
One of the pioneers of Japan's influential 8mm filmmaking scene of the late 1970s, Sogo Ishii is still far from being given his proper due outside his home country. France's l'Étrange Festival went some ways toward remedying the situation with a retrospective of his work in September 2004. We can only hope for a follow-up, but the obscure situation of many of his films, as well as the ever enigmatic and idiosyncratic ways of Ishii himself, don't make it easy for his films to find proper release, in or outside Japan.
In the following interview Midnight Eye talks to Ishii about his early days as a filmmaker and his close ties with Japan's punk scene of the 1970s and 80s, in which he was a pivotal figure despite never touching a musical instrument.
You are originally from Hakata in Kyushu, which was also the breeding ground for a lot of rock and punk bands in the 1970s.
Around Hakata there were quite a lot of American naval bases and as a result we heard a lot of rock music. Lots of kids grew up wanting to become rock musicians and quite a few actually became famous later on. I wanted to be a musician too, but I realised quickly that I wasn't cut out for it, so I turned to film and started making 8mm movies. But that wasn't until I came to Tokyo to go to university.
Among the rock bands that were popular in Japan in the 1970s and 80s, a large number were originally from the city of Fukuoka in Hakata. Several of them appear in Burst City, like The Rockers and The Roosters, and also there were The Mods who were in Crazy Thunder Road. Those were the three big groups from Kyushu.
And what about Son House?
Son House was our big brother band. They influenced everyone who came after, including the three bands I just mentioned.
You also had a very close relationship with the band The Stalin, who were also in Burst City.
The bass player of the band was from Fukuoka and I first met them thanks to him. He was a great musician, but unfortunately he died about ten years ago. It seems as if the majority of the people who were in Burst City are dead today. They were real punk musicians (laughs).
Can we say that from the moment you decided to pick up a camera, you've tried to express the same things as those musicians, except with a camera instead of a guitar?
Film and music are different things, so we can't express ourselves in the same way, but it's true that we shared the same spirit in our work. When I looked at foreign bands like The Clash, The Sex Pistols, The Birthday Party, or Einstürzende Neubauten, I was impressed by the way they managed to reach people in different countries. I was only making short films on 8mm, but even as early as the first version of Panic High School I made my films with the intention of reaching an international audience. I had no interest in the psychological aspects of most Japanese films. I kept dialogue to a minimum and wanted to show the intensity of moments, above all.
What made you decide on cinema as your form of expression, after you gave up music?
Firstly, I really liked movies. But in Fukuoka all we could see were entertainment films, so I had never seen an art film. The 8mm cameras were very popular and accessible at the time in Japan. When I was just a high school student I didn't have the money to buy one, but once I was in university I had a part time job and I bought a camera that could record sound and images at the same time. With that I figured I could easily make films myself.
Before I got that camera I tried music, poetry, and painting, but I always had the feeling that these things weren't suited to me. But as soon as I began working with 8mm film I felt that something clicked. People found my films interesting, which really motivated me to continue. From that period up until Crazy Family in 1984 I made movies essentially non-stop. If I had a moment to spare I would help out friends by working as a cameraman or producer on their films. The years passed very quickly that way.
Did you return to Kyushu for any of your films, or were they mostly shot in and around Tokyo?
I shot parts of Panic High School and Burst City in Fukuoka. I still had a lot of friends there that I wanted to use in my films.
You were still a student when you made Panic High School and Crazy Thunder Road, right?
Yes, and Shuffle too. Crazy Thunder Road was my graduation project. Actually I never officially graduated, I tried to stay in school as long as possible so I could keep using their filmmaking facilities for free, but at one point they just told me to leave (laughs).
Shinya Tsukamoto told me that he was at the same university as you and around the same time as well.
Yes, that's true, even though he was a few years younger. But we never met at the time.
He remembered well how famous you were among the students because you had made several feature films while still a student.
Maybe. I don't really know what other students were doing or thinking, because I only came to school when I needed to borrow materials for my films.
Could you talk a bit about the experience of making Crazy Thunder Road?
We didn't have much money and the main crew consisted of only four people. All the actors were volunteers, including the leads, and all the bikers in the movie are real bikers. Every day my assistant would go into town to find bikers to appear in the film. Usually, even if they had agreed, they wouldn't show up on the set because they had been arrested by the cops in the meantime (laughs). Making that film was really like flying by the seat of your pants.
Where did the lead actor Tatsuo Yamada come from?
He was part of a theater troupe, but I believe he made his living by playing pachinko. He was a gambler (laughs). Most of the main actors came from independent theater. They were already performing a kind of rock 'n' roll theater, with leather jackets and everything. Tatsuo Yamada in real life was exactly like his character in the film.
How did you feel when Toei proposed distributing the film theatrically?
It was great, because I had borrowed a lot of money to make the film and I was expecting to have to work several years to pay off those debts, but thanks to Toei I could pay them all off right then and there. If not, I probably wouldn't have been able to continue making films for at least a while. I even had some money left at the end, which I used to make Shuffle.
Did you have any hesitations when Toei approached you, especially after your experiences at Nikkatsu on the remake of Panic High School?
I decided never to work with any of the major studios after my experiences with Nikkatsu, but Crazy Thunder Road was a different case. I made it entirely the way I wanted to make it, so if Toei wanted to distribute the film, I was very happy to have them do so. After Panic High School I was so angry at the Nikkatsu producers for essentially pushing me out of my own film, that I wanted to show them what I was capable of on my own with Crazy Thunder Road.
Toei does have something of a tradition of making biker movies.
Ah yes, I guess that's true. But those movies weren't very interesting (laughs).
Shuffle was adapted from a manga by Katsuhiro Otomo. Is it true that you didn't bother to ask his permission?
Yes, I made it without telling him (laughs). I did show it to him after it was finished, though. I brought the finished film to his office and projected it to him on the wall. Then I asked him, "Can I have your okay?" He said he liked the film, but that in the future he would appreciate it if I asked his permission first (laughs).
How did Burst City come into being?
Crazy Thunder Road had done very well. It got good reviews and made quite a lot of money, so Toei asked me to make another film in the same style. I didn't care to redo the same film and I decided to do something about punk music and riots instead.
Is it correct that you are not very happy with the two-hour version of Burst City that was originally released?
Yes, that's true. The release date had been decided well in advance, but I had never been in a situation where I had to finish a film before a deadline. It was also the first time I worked with a budget supplied by a production company in advance, and I thought I'd died and gone to heaven (laughs). I thought anything was possible with all that money. Every day I shot as much material as I wanted, but the crew was just as inexperienced as on Crazy Thunder Road. I was just a snot-nosed kid at the time, I didn't pay any attention to the production side of it all. I went over schedule and had almost no money left toward the end. It was out of control, basically. But I had a deadline, so the two-hour cut that I had at that moment was not my final version. The sound effects weren't very good and I had to work with the regular Toei staff to make sure the film was at least presentable. I've always wanted to re-edit the film, even to this day.
A kind of eternal work-in-progress.
Well, it's Toei that still holds the rights to the film and they've never responded to my requests to redo the movie. If one day I have enough money, I would like to buy the film from them and re-edit it.
I must admit that I really love the two-hour version of Burst City. In fact it's one of my favourite Japanese films of all time.
Not me, sorry (laughs). I think it could be even better. But it's true that I could never make a film like it again. It really shows the energy and atmosphere of the period in which it was made.
So you believe that you can improve the film purely by using the existing material?
Yes. I'd like to re-edit it and above all to redo the sound effects.
Another film you're not happy with is the second version of Panic High School, which we've already mentioned, the one produced by Nikkatsu on which you were forced to co-direct with Yukihiro Sawada. But even if it's a flawed film, there are moments in it that are pure Sogo Ishii. In particular the scene in which the students run down the stairs in panic just as the protagonist comes walking up. There's this chaos that ensues and you've got the camera right in the middle of it. The style of that scene is very similar to the style you later used on Crazy Thunder Road and Burst City, very energetic.
That's true. It's one of the few scenes in the film that I like. I've changed a bit since then, but at the time I wanted the camera to be a character in itself. By way of the camera I wanted to create a closeness, a strongly subjective experience for the viewer. To get the aggression across on screen I really had to get in there and be really energetic in my use of the camera. My formula was that I had to be ten times as energetic in making the film than what I wanted to express on the screen. If I wanted a certain level of energy in the film, that meant I had to give ten times that amount of energy when making it, be that on the set, in the mise-en scene, or in the editing. The editing had to be ten times as intense as the energy in the scene for it to come across. As a result, the film comes alive, it becomes a living being in its own right. That to me is the magic of cinema, it's what gives me such pleasure in making films. I can't imagine making a film that doesn't contain at least one moment like that. Even when I watch films I look for it. If I'm going to escape from real life, I want to immerse myself entirely in cinema.
I've done a lot of experimenting with film speeds to get to this end. My dissatisfaction with Burst City also has to do with its speed, I feel I could have done more. On set the atmosphere was much more impressive than it is in the film.
I believe that your work and experiments with film speed and editing is of equal importance to what Sam Peckinpah did. You are to fast motion what Peckinpah is to slow motion.
I think it comes from the desire to express ecstasy. That magic of cinema I spoke of has to do with an escape from the clutches of reality into pure time and space. When I experience that it's like being drunk, except that it makes my mind extremely clear and I'm able to totally express myself. At that level I am able to express the same ecstasy that rock music can create. Every time this happens it is like a new experience for me. It's what I strive for, but it's not very easy to achieve.
Up until Burst City I tried to reach that state by physical means, in other words by means of speed. It was very hard, both physically and mentally, to endure. Burst City is a kind of pinnacle of that approach, I wanted to realise an extremely fast film.
Could you talk a bit about your project with the band Bacillus Army, the album Asia Strikes Back and the film you made to accompany it?
I knew I wasn't cut out for music, but at the same the collaborative nature of filmmaking often frustrated me due to its slowness. I wanted to move quicker, but I couldn't. Often when I felt that frustration I would turn to music. After Burst City I got together with members of The Roosters and the vocalist of Son House and we recorded the album Asia Strikes Back. I made a thirty-minute film with the same title that was released on video at the time. I'm thinking of releasing it on DVD at the moment, but with some major modifications to the sound and the music.
I also love the film you made of The Stalin's farewell concert.
They reformed later, though (laughs). But it's true that that was a really great concert.
What are your thoughts on the Band Boom, the sudden wave of interest in rock bands in the mid-1980s?
Essentially it was people who were younger than my generation, who wanted to popularise what we were doing in punk rock. I guess it was just the demands of the period, I didn't care for it much. At the time I was getting into an older style of rock, I went back to listen to The Velvet Underground and Jimi Hendrix. Also, the Band Boom didn't do much for the older bands in terms of record sales. Many of them remained unknown.
What kind of music do you listen to today, particularly in terms of Japanese artists?
Mostly my friends from the old days who are still making music, like Michiro Endo of The Stalin. He's still doing great stuff. Also the band Friction, who I worked with a couple of years ago. DJ Krush I like a lot too, and a band called Mo'some Tonebender.
And Japanese filmmakers?
All Japanese filmmakers are my rivals (laughs). I have a difficult time watching their films and genuinely enjoying them, so this is a question I can't answer.