Sogo Ishii

24 July 2001
picture: Sogo Ishii

by ,

The influence of Sogo Ishii on the development of contemporary Japanese cinema is incontestable. In the late 1970s, he was the first to make the move from underground amateur filmmaking into the professional industry, paving the way for followers as diverse asShunichi Nagasaki, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and Shinya Tsukamoto. With the Japanese release of his latest, the one-hour, experimental Electric Dragon 80,000 V, Ishii returns to his roots and once again delivers a powerful and overwhelming cinematic experience.

JS: Your entry into the Japanese film industry in the early 1980s was quite unusual compared to other Japanese directors at the time. Could you tell us something about those days, how you got into the industry and about the climate at the time?

I've been making movies since I was 19 years old. My first film was shot on 8mm, it was called Panic High School. At the time it was very difficult for young people to make films in Japan. It still is, in fact. Most directors are over 40, and the normal process is to begin as an assistant director, then gradually move on to directing. I didn't want to be an assistant director and I just started making films by myself. So yes, my way was different from the usual way.

JS: And I understand you were a musician beforehand.

A kind of musician (laughs). The music I made was punk, kind of psychedelic. I always loved using dub too.

JS: Your visuals seem very influenced by punk music. Is there a clear source of influence for your visual style?

It comes mainly from within myself. But I feel like I'm still trying things. Everything is a big challenge. With this digital revolution going on right now, I think there are a lot of challenging new possibilities and new ways of expressing myself.

TM: You seem to make a lot of films that are outside accepted commercial standards, which deviate from the standard feature running time for instance. Do you feel that you will be experimenting more with digital technologies to make these kinds of non-mainstream films?

My filmmaking is not so much about running time. I've made short films, but Gojoe for instance is over two hours long. I like doing both. I'm doing some experimental video stuff right now, mainly incorporating music. I want to fuse images with music.

JS: So a film like Electric Dragon 80,000 V, what market was that made for? Will it be shown theatrically or on television for instance?

It's just an experimental thing, basically. I haven't even decided on the distributor. In fact it's only just finished. I hope it will get distributed at the end of this year. [It was eventually released in cinemas in Japan in July, 2001 - TM] But what I would most like to do is take the movie on tour. It's a different way of distributing and I think it's better suited to this film. I didn't make it for a theatrical release.

TM: Is this a project you developed with Tadanobu Asano? Because his name is in the credits for a lot of different things.

Yes. Asano-san made the titles and did the calligraphy for the film. He is an artist and a musician too. A very creative man. Masatoshi Nagase too.

TM: The plot for the film, as much as there is one, reminded me a lot of the prototype plot for American superhero comic books: a hero with superpowers and a villain who builds a device to emulate those powers, in order to defeat him. Was that an inspiration or is it purely a coincidence?

Before making Electric Dragon, I wasn't thinking of anything special. People say it looks like a comic book or like a video game. I like manga, but I never read American comics and I also never play video games.

JS: Stylistically the film seems to be going back to your early films like Crazy Thunder Road, with the fast editing style and loud music. Your more recent films like August in the Water and Angel Dust were a lot more relaxed and sedate. Do your consider yourself having come full circle?

My first four films were made between 1980 and 1983. I call them my 'punk movies'. These films are liked by a lot of people and my public image is based on these films, so that's why I'm seen as the 'punk director'. After that I wanted to take up another challenge and also the investors of those later films didn't like the punk style (laughs). So those are two reason why my films changed. But my current producer mister Sento, he wanted to see another punk movie from me, so he asked me to make one.

TM: That early punk style was sort of appropriated by Shinya Tsukamoto and after that by Kei Fujiwara with Organ. Do you feel you paved the way for them to make their style of films?

Because Tsukamoto-san started making films that were similar to mine, I decided to change my films. I like Tsukamoto's movies, though, but I didn't see Organ.

JS: After your initial series of four punk movies, there is almost a ten-year gap until your next feature, Angel Dust. What exactly were you doing in the meantime?

I made a film called Crazy Family in 1984, which got a lot of attention abroad, but wasn't very popular in Japan. This was the same situation as before. Everyone in Japan just complained that they didn't understand my films. So it was difficult to work in Japan at that time. I was thinking about making Gojoe back then, but I couldn't find any investors, so there was no money for me to do it. I got a lot of support from Europe and America, but it didn't really work out. So during the period up until Angel Dust I did some experimental short films and I've also been doing some other work to make my living.

TM: What kind of work was that exactly, because we know you worked with the German band Einstürzende Neubauten?

Yes, that was called Half Human and also there was the short Master of Shiatsu, a TV project called Tokyo Blood, and a few films for the video market.

JS: Was that film Master of Shiatsu made entirely for yourself, as an experiment?

I made it to cure my mental damage. I had so many bad feelings because I couldn't get any new film projects off the ground, so this was a way to cure myself, a kind of therapy.

TM: You definitely get a feeling of well-being when watching it, it's very relaxing.

Oh, thank you very much (laughs).

JS: Was Crazy Family a form of rebellion against Yoshimitsu Morita's Family Game (1983), which came out just before?

With Crazy Family I wanted to show the Japanese family as I saw it. Watching Family Game I thought: "There are no families like this in Japan" (laughs). The films were made at the same time, so it wasn't a rebellion against that. And also they had the same producer, Shiro Sasaki of the Art Theatre Guild.

TM: In Angel Dust you seemed to take a very metaphysical approach. Was that something brought on by the story or was there another source?

In this ten-year period, I couldn't make the films I wanted to make, so all the time I was thinking, constantly thinking. I was living inside myself. I think that aspect came out when I made Angel Dust.

TM: So was that a project from an existing screenplay?

Yes, that's correct. The producer brought me that project and wanted me to make a suspense movie, and also there had to be a love story in it. That's what he told me.

TM: Angel Dust seemed to me to be a thriller on the plot level, but it seemed you went searching for other elements inside that.

Yes. The metaphysical (laughs). I spent a lot of time reading books in the years before that, especially the work of Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard. Reading those, I saw new possibilities of expression and they continue to influence me to this day. By that time, virtual reality was coming up in Japan and the meta fiction these writers use in their novels was really similar to what was happening in Japan at this time.

JS: Do you see any other directors working in Japan or anywhere else in the world right now with whom you share an approach or feel a kinship?

I liked The Hole by Tsai Ming-Liang. There's Jim Jarmusch and also some of the films by Alex Cox.

TM: There is an interesting parallel between your own career and that of American director Sam Raimi. He started making films at the same time as you, also experimenting with speed and editing, and he also has been making films recently which are much more restrained, like A Simple Plan.

I like him a lot too. A Simple Plan was really good. And Darkman as well. I like that one a lot.

TM: How do Electric Dragon and Gojoe relate? They were made around the same time and share the same producer and cast.

Actually, I shot Electric Dragon first and didn't start Gojoe until after that shooting. Gojoe cost a lot of money to make, so in the end that was the movie that was finished first. Even though the two films were made together, Gojoe had more riding on it and had to be finished first.

TM: How do you manage to separate two such distinct projects, mentally and creatively?

I think they are different, like you said, but they also have a lot of similarities. The original screenplay for Gojoe had already been written ten years ago, so I had been thinking about making it for just as long. Electric Dragon was very spontaneous. It just came up and I really wanted to make it quickly, so the shooting period was very brief. It didn't take a lot of time.

JS: The editing must have taken a lot of time.

Not really (laughs). Sound was difficult, though. It did take a while to get that right.

TM: The story of Gojoe is very much rooted in history and tradition, I believe?

The story is very famous in Japan, though young people hardly know it. But what I did was turn everything into its opposite: the good people became the bad people and the other way around. I didn't set out to make a classical jidai geki, so I put elements of science fiction and magic realism into it. I used the story as a kind of set-up. Normally, my films are only seen by young people, but I wanted a lot of people to see it, so this was the first time I could shoot a film on a big budget. It was like five times the amount of money I'm used to working with.

TM: Did that money come with certain restrictions?

It was as difficult as always, with the same problems. Despite all the money, nothing changed.