Takahisa Zeze

23 April 2003
picture: Takahisa Zeze

by ,

Coming into prominence as one of the leading lights in the new wave of pinku eiga erotic films of the late 1980s, Takahisa Zeze has gone on to become a rather versatile director. The last few years he directed such mainstream hits as the lovers-on-the lam saga Hysteric, the action comedy Rush, and the romantic fantasy Dog Star. All the while, he continues working in the pink film field, churning out work that is always intriguing and goes far beyond the requirements of the simple skin flick, a fact for which he was lauded at an extensive pink film retro at Italy's Far East Film festival in 2002.

The following interview is a composite of two separate interviews with Zeze. One which took place in 2002 in Udine, by Tom Mes with Roland Domenig translating, and one which took place later in the year in Tokyo to promote his new film, the sci-fi comedy SF Whip Cream, by Jasper Sharp, with Junko Sasaki acting as translator.

SF Whip Cream is quite a departure from your earlier work. What attracted you to the idea of making a science fiction comedy?

The plan originally wasn't to make a science fiction film. The aliens in the film represent illegal immigrants to Japan, either from Asian or the Middle Eastern countries. So it started out with an abandoned Japanese baby who is picked up by accident by these illegal aliens and then taken away to a foreign country. That was the original idea. It was the producer, whom I've known for quite a while, who suggested making it as a sci-fi film, to give it a more commercial aspect. This idea of a sci-fi comedy reminded me of a Soviet sci-fi film called Kin-Dza-Dza [dir. Georgi Daneliya, 1986]. It wasn't like the Hollywood idea of sci-fi - it was very "cheap". I showed the producer a video of this Russian film and he liked it, so we decided to take it from there.

It's not an actual remake then?

Well, in Kin-Dza-Dza there is a young man and a middle-aged man and they're both Russians. They come across an instant transportation system that takes them to another planet, which is ruled by a very stupid king. He's like the king in the fairy story The Emperor's New Clothes - the one who's actually naked but he's the only person that can't see it. That was made in 1986 when the Soviet Union was still heavily ruled by this Communist bureaucracy, so they took the basis of this story and turned it into a political satire.

So this view of planet Earth populated by illegal aliens - what comment are you actually making on ethnicity in Japan?

To put it simply, these people are still very much discriminated against, and this is obviously not a good thing. One more thing, I wanted to base the story around a character who lacks national identity and is seeking one. The main character, Ken, was picked up aliens as a baby, so he's not a typical Japanese.

You've taken this subject of foreigners living in Japan before, in your first pink film Good Luck Japan a.k.a. Go To Haneda And You Will See The Kids Dressed As Pirates and Ready To Attack. Is this a theme that interests you?

Yes, that's right. I made that film in 1989, and it featured the Taiwan Mafia and "Japayuki" [note: prostitutes from other countries in Asia who come to Japan for work] - in other words, foreigners in Japan. In that sense with SF Whip Cream I wanted to do a similar thing. That's probably because I felt a need in myself to cross country, nationality, and generation. At that time, around 1989 I remember what happened in China, in Tiananmen Square, and there was the Berlin Wall as well, so it seemed that there was a new movement in the world, with the borders between East and West being torn down. The old system was being destroyed. So I was very much interested in this theme at the time.

I was both moved and excited by these developments, and I partly believed in the future too. Nowadays, I see things just as they are in SF Whip Cream, and what we all anticipated hasn't actually come to pass yet. So I might feel a little cynical about that. Anyway, I'm still using the same themes about crossing borders, but with this latest film my cynical standpoint made me adopt a more comic style. Nevertheless, I haven't abandoned all hope for the future...

picture: scenes from SF Whip Cream

There's obviously been a big change in young people's attitude to politics now, as opposed to ten years ago. This is reflected in your pink films, I think. In a film like No Man's Land you use a fragmented narrative to portray the (sex-) lives of your various characters in contemporary Tokyo against the backdrop of the Gulf War. Tokyo X Erotica follows a similar format, yet lacks any political dimension. Do you feel that pink film is no longer a valid avenue for political comment, or is it that modern audiences just are no longer concerned with political issues?

That maybe says more about myself at the time. The Liberal Democratic Party had just lost their power, and the Nihon Shinto Party had just got in. I myself had voted for that new party, so there was a lot of hope for the future and it felt like things were going to change. But now the Liberal Democratic Party is back in power, and the political situation is still the same, and this new movement that we'd hoped for, for so long, has failed to materialise. So I myself am rather disillusioned by the whole thing.

Yes, I think we can say at the very least that people in Japan are losing an interest in politics. Maybe it wasn't only in Japan, but around the whole world there was this strong feeling about the end of the millennium. In Japan we had the Aum gas attacks, the Hanshin Great Earthquake, and Sakakibara incident, [note: when a junior high school student killed an elementary student]. Now, we've gone through all these stages, and I think young people now are generally a lot slacker. There's this lukewarm feeling. Young people lack urgency and seem to have forgotten what happened at the end of the millennium.

One last thing - Tokyo X Erotica chronicles a period from 1982 to 2002, and I tried to show this gradual change in Japanese society. So, yes, the characters do have a lot of sex and do appear to be living without having to deal with this socio-political background. Basically I'm now interested in a wider, more general span of time, and how people's lifestyles don't really change over time, and I'm not coming from the viewpoint of someone from any one specific generation. I'll just mention that though part of the film was set in 2002, it was actually filmed in 2001, so this is really my prediction of the future.

[Editors' note: This interview was conducted prior to the invasion of Iraq led by the United States. Both prior to and during the conflict, there have been numerous demonstrations in Japan, as there have been all over the world]

Pink film is often seen as one of the last few reserves of the auteur. It is often said that as long as you deliver so many sex scenes in one hour, the director can fill the rest of the running time with whatever he wants. Is this true?

Yes it is. We believed it was true at the time, so we tried to make what we wanted to make, but some theatre owners and the "ojisan", the old men who just came to see pink films, weren't too happy with all the politics. The ones who upset them happened to be the 'Pink Shitenno', 'The Four Devils' - this was around 1992 when the critics first came up with this name.

In both pink film retrospectives at Rotterdam [in 1995] and Udine, the pink genre was presented as a kind of training ground for directors, a way to learn their craft but also a way to express themselves. Is this the way you felt about it when you first stared out making these films?

I do feel that in my case, it was a kind of training ground, a space to experiment. Maybe other directors feel differently, but for me that was certainly true. But even though we're talking about training or experimenting, it's not like going to school where you learn and prepare for the real thing that follows after. I made independent films that were shown in cinemas, so it was not just training and learning. The fact that I was actually already making films was always on my mind.

Even though I'm now in my forties, I haven't changed much from those days. I'm more experienced, but I'm still directing pink films. They are made with low budgets and when you have such a low budget there is more room for experimental approaches. Because if you don't do this, there's no way to compete with the bigger productions. So it's the low budgets that are great for trying out something new.

Is that the reason why you continue to make pink films?

Yes, it's one of the reasons. You have a great freedom of expression and the freedom to try new things. Another reason is that it allows me to make films with other people's money. When you make truly independent films you have to find financing and raise the money yourself. I'm not very good at collecting money. It's much easier for me to make the films I have in mind but to use other people's money for it (laughs).

You were considered as one of those 'Pink Shitenno'. How did you feel about this title and about the fact that the four of you were seen as a group?

It's difficult for me to answer this question, because I don't look at myself as being special or different from other people. I don't know how others feel about it. When I and the other three began making films, it was a time of crisis within the field of pink films. Everybody said that pink movies were finished and that they would disappear in a few years' time.

In the 1990s in Japan as a whole there was a feeling of crisis. First there was the economic slump, then the Kobe earthquake, the gas attack on the Tokyo subway, several murder cases involving young people and so on. There was a sense of crisis. I, and maybe also the other directors, was trying to fight something. There was the sense that there was an enemy that had to be fought against. That was a very strong motivation for all of us, this wish to look for topics that allowed us to relate to all these problems happening around us.

The last few years this has changed a bit. Japan is calming down. At the same time pink films have also continued to be around and nobody talks about crisis anymore. If you look at the films of the younger generation of pink film directors, the 'Shichifukujin', they don't have this sense of struggle. They make films that relate to themselves and to a very tiny world that surrounds them. They don't try to present a new vision of society or ask questions relating to broad topics, but work on a more personal level. The framework is getting smaller.

I still try to find answers to very general questions about the world and society, but this sense is lost now within the young generation. So there's a big difference between the time when we started making films and when they started. This difference is reflected in the films.

To what extent were you a unit, the Shitenno? Did you often work together?

Hisayasu Sato was my senior. I worked for him as his assistant director in the early days. Kazuhiro Sano also used to be an actor, and is still as an actor now.

picture: scenes from Tokyo X Erotica and SF Whip Cream

I noticed he was in the credits for Tokyo X Erotica.

That's right. And he's not only in pink films. He was in Sogo Ishii's Burst City (Bakuretsu Toshi, 1982) too. There was a time when Hisayasu Sato would be directing, I was assistant directing, and Sano was the lead actor. Good Luck Japan, which we talked about earlier, also features Sano. I remember once there was a gay pink film, and Sato wanted to use Sano, so I was the go-between and negotiated with him to appear in it. That's how we all started working together.

So the three of us were working quite closely together, but Toshiki Sato's background is a little different. We all worked for Shishi Production, but Toshiki Sato worked freelance for a number of different production companies. Hisayasu Sato had been working in pink for a while, but the other three of us started working later, and we all made our debuts around 1989.

This year was not a particularly good time for the pink film, because AV had so much power and was using lots of cutesy "idol"-style actresses, so for the films we made from 86-89 we had lots of requests to use these types of actresses. That year we felt that the pink film was very much in danger of extinction, so that was what made me think, if they're disappearing anyway, then we can get to do what we want. That's how we got to be so hated by the "ojisan"!

We often used to get together and talk about having our own independent screenings, so on Saturday afternoons we used to meet in a coffee shop in Shinjuku, to make plans. The Athenée Français was running independent arthouse screenings, and they showed our works in a special event called Shin Nihon Sakashugi Retsuden, a showcase of new Japanese filmmakers with their own unique styles, which also featured Naomi Kawase. I was involved in a Talk Event with her. This was a few years before she became well known. At the time, these artistic films from directors like Shinji Aoyama and Naomi Kawase, were drawing attention around the world, and we came to be lumped together with them.

Was this intentional, or just a lucky accident?

We didn't intend to make "art films", but we were talking about heading in that direction. One thing for sure was that we were a group of people, so we were creating a movement. It's similar to Jean-Luc Godard and the directors of the French New Wave, or Masao Adachi and Koji Wakamatsu with Wakamatsu Productions. We knew that we needed a few of us to make a movement.

The pink film retrospective in Udine was already the second held in Europe, after the one at the Rotterdam Film Festival several years ago. This would suggest that pink eiga are now really recognised as an art form outside Japan.

It's difficult to say, because it depends on what you mean with the term 'art form'. But it's true that in the early 1990s I and other directors making pink films tried to sell our films as art films, because the genre in itself was something nobody cared about. So we tried to have our films shown in small theatres as special screenings, to bring them to people as a kind of new type of arthouse film.

This was quite successful, but in the late 90s this situation changed. People like Shinji Aoyama, Nobuhiro Suwa, and Naomi Kawase came up, who made real independent art films. When our films were shown in Rotterdam in 1995, it was still in this period where they were being shown in Japan as arthouse films.

The peak of arthouse films was in the late 90s and today you see that festivals look towards more entertainment-oriented films too, like the films of Katsuyuki Motohiro. Festival programmers are no longer just searching in this narrow frame of arthouse films. The program of pink films in Udine was an opportunity to see the variety of what's going on in this field. In the 90s they were sold as art films, but now they are just another aspect of Japanese cinema. And I think we should look at them this way.

Is this decline of art film a reason why you moved towards more mainstream films like Hysteric and Rush?

I don't think my development as a filmmaker is directly linked to the development of Japanese films in general, so I can't really say there's a relation between the two.

But did these changes make it easier for you to do films outside the pink genre?

I started making regular films in the mid-90s, together with Toshiki Sato and Hisayasu Sato. Actually, they started before me, I began doing that in 1997. But even though I did 'regular' films, those films were all in a specific genre or type. Hysteric was a story about two criminals, Rush was a Sho Aikawa action comedy and Dog Star is a romantic film. In this sense my situation didn't change much because the question remains what I can express within a certain framework.

picture: scenes from Hysteric and Rush

Toshiki Sato has now moved into mainstream films, with, to name but one, his recent Perfect Blue - Yume Nara Samete. What has happened to the other two?

Kazuhiro Sano still acts occasionally, but isn't directing now. Hirayasu Sato too. I haven't asked them personally, but I think it has something to do with the current times, as I mentioned before. Sato made very violent films, and Sano's were very political. The times have changed a lot, and there's this sort of lethargy I mentioned now. Their motivation had a lot to do with political activism. They made films out of anger, and there just isn't a market for that now.

So it's just changed according to the times. It used to be violent and political, whereas now filmmakers are more concerned with portraying everyday life and everyday situations. It's a generational change. Young women in Japan are a lot more open about sex. There are a lot more scenes now showing the women on top.

So it's not just for a better view then....

(laughs) Well, perhaps it's that as well. But it's just young people's views of sex are changing.

Do you think that more girls are actually watching these films now, or is it still the same "ojisan" audiences you mentioned earlier?

I spoke to a producer of a cable TV company I know, and he said that when they run a series of pink films made for cable or V-cinema, a lot of their viewers are housewives watching the films in the daytime.

Unlike many pinku eiga, your films don't feature rape much. You always show sex between consenting adults. Is this subject of rape something that is very alien to you? Why do you choose to show sex as consensual in your films?

I guess you're right that I usually show consensual sex. I try to show relationships, I make films about love. It's not just about the act of having sex, but what leads up to it and what comes after. What are the feelings of the people before, while they do it and after they did it? It's this development that interests me. I don't care very much about rape, because it's very one-sided and doesn't allow for this kind of development.

In general, and this has to do with what I said before, in the 1980s there were a lot of films that dealt with rape, although there were other types of films too. But today, the portrayal of rape has almost disappeared. Especially among the younger filmmakers, whose films show very strong women leading the relationships.

This has to do with changes in society in general, the position of women changed a lot over the past twenty or thirty years. Nowadays many directors start from a very personal viewpoint, they depict very personal experiences. In most cases they don't have any experiences of rape. So you see changes in questions of gender and gender perception. This also relates to what I mentioned before, about the sex scenes showing the woman on top and leading the sex, which is something that was very rare before. But in my case, I don't want to depict characters as having sex, but as making love.

Tokyo X Erotica was shown in the Eurospace cinema in Tokyo, and has been released on DVD in Japan by Uplink, both established outlets for more "arthouse" products. Do you think this is because of the audience's perception of pink cinema, or is this more a conscious awareness of the market on your part.

It's not really a strategy. I was just interested in shooting a film on digital video, and the end results were more artistic because of this.

A lot of your mainstream films, such as Hysteric or Raigyo, feature adult themes and content, whilst a lot of your films that are marketed as "erotic films", Dirty Maria (Kegareta Maria: Haitoku no Hibi), for example, feature strong narratives and actually not much more sex than a lot of mainstream releases. Do you yourself see any distinction in making "an erotic film", "an art film" or "mainstream" cinema, or is this something more artificially imposed by the distributors and marketing departments?

It goes back to when I was in my twenties, I was watching a lot of films that were a lot more experimental or challenging, with new ways of expression. Along with pink films, I was inspired by documentaries, such as the films of Shinsuke Ogawa and Kazuo Hara. They made very personal statements to me.

It's not really one particular type of film I'm making. I just like doing new things, to do something I haven't done before - both inside and outside of the pink genre, be it mainstream or whatever. Some of my mainstream films look like my pink films and some of my pink films seem more mainstream than others. I tend to shoot pink and mainstream alternately, so when they are lined up together, my body of work seems to have a slightly confused look, or a strange alignment with one another.

How well do you think pink film will stand up with the large amount of AV videos, the declining number of screens, video revenues, etc.? What do you think will happen in the future? More female directors, perhaps?

There are some, in fact. Sachi Hamano, for example. The main actress from Raigyo is also shooting pink films now.

Do you think the pink industry now is in a similar crisis point as it was back in 1989?

No. Not now. And the younger directors working in the industry don't think so either. There's now a definite established market on video for these films. These films that are screened on cable aren't necessarily shown as pink films, so perhaps many people don't have an idea what they are watching, because they appear like a normal movie.

What's the current censorship situation with Eirin? I noticed a lot of European "art films" released in Japan, such as Catherine Breillat's Romance, are being released unfogged, whereas pink films are self-censored by the director or studios.

There used to be very strict rules about pubic hair, but now, as long as you don't show the act itself, then the hair is ok. According to the rules in Japan, if you show a man and a woman, stark naked and having intercourse in a full body shot, then it becomes an R-18.

Can I ask you about some of the working titles you gave to your early pink films? My favourites are The Monk Farted, and My Existence is a Phenomenon Based on the Hypothesis of Blue Light Generated By Organic Currency. They're a lot more memorable than the ones they were actually released under. Where did they come from?

During the production process of a pink film the end title hasn't been decided yet. If you have a very sleazy title, thinking about the finished film when you are sitting on the train or wherever is very difficult, so I try to give the film a working title that I like first.

This title "My Existence is Derived..." (Watashi to Iu Gensho wa Kateisareta Yuki - Koru Dento no Hitotsu no Aoi Shomei Desu) actually comes from a poem by Kenji Miyazawa. This poem by Miyazawa says that there is no such thing as a personal identity within yourself - it's more a reflection of what other people think you are.
The same with the title My Train Is Supposed to Be Going North But It's Going South (Watakushi no Kisha wa Kita e Hashitteiru Hazunanoni Koko Dewa Minami e Kaketeiru), my title for Chikan Densha: Ikenai Tsuma-Tachi [trans: Train Pervert: Mischievous Wives]. These two feature the same actress in the role of a widow. I always liked Kenji Miyazawa's writing, but at the time I was thinking how I can construct his world within pink cinema. The two worlds are completely different.

I was born in 1960, so in 1980 I was 20. In the 60s there was the Anpo movement, and in the 1970s there were similar student movements, but in the 80s there was no equivalent, so this nothingness was my era. In the 90s there was Aum, and mysticism, and various other cults, and these all combine together to form a more spiritual movement, so I thought it was a movement that came together ten years too late for our generation. There was nothing in the 80s. So in my mind, the reason I was attracted to Miyazawa was connected to the time.

Do you remember the scene in SF Whip Cream where the middle-aged man asks Ken to tell a story in the space ship? It was about a village that goes dry from lack of rain, and if you make a volcano explode the village can be saved, but someone has to sacrifice their life to do so. This is also from Kenji Miyazawa. As for Bosan ga Ho Koita (The Monk Farted), this is from a playground poem that kids use to count and remember hiragana.

picture: scenes from Raigyo and Dog Star

Going back to your mainstream work, having seen a lot of your recent work the one thing I have noticed is the staggering diversity. There's a horror film, gangster film, romantic comedy with Dog Star, and now the sci-fi comedy. Where do you think you are going to go next?

I don't know! I just accepted what was offered to me, and it all ended up that way!

Your last two films have been particularly light-hearted. If I explained the synopsis of Dog Star, for example, to someone who didn't know your work, it almost sounds like a Disney movie or the script of an anime. Is this a conscious attempt to broaden your appeal?

Yes, I'm conscious about this. Like I said, because the types of films I used to make are not easily accepted any more. So I'm trying to make films within the framework of entertainment, something a little more accessible. I used to construct an image of this imaginary enemy in my own mind and make films aimed against this enemy. But now I try to make films more generally about life.

How did the opportunity to move into mainstream filmmaking with Kokkuri come about? Was it something that just happened, or was it something you were actively aiming for?

This was a film for Nikkatsu, and I knew this producer before, when I wrote a script for another director's movie. So this producer called me one day and asked me to write a film with three high school girls and a "kokkuri-san" [a ouija board], and told me to make something out of this. It was a troublesome prospect. Before this, there had been a couple of offers and plans to make other films, but none of them made it to production.

Kokkuri came out at roughly the same time as The Ring, and seems to embody a lot of the elements of Japanese horror at the time - the "vengeful ghost" story amongst a milieu of high school girl characters. How was it received in Japan amongst the wave of horror films that came about at this time? It must have been one of the first, wasn't it?

I don't remember. There was a big horror boom already in Japan. Perhaps it was that fin-de-siècle, millennial mood I was talking about earlier. There was a lot of interest in horror that year. That's all they asked me to do - something with high school girls and horror.

Have you any interest in doing any more horror?

I did another V-cinema horror film after that, but I decided that I'm not really cut out for it after that. Good horror film directors, such as Kiyoshi Kurosawa, don't show the source of the fear until the very end - they hide it skilfully. But I have the sort of character that wants to show everything at the beginning. What makes it worse is that I try to show the emotions and suffering of the monster in a very human way.

Rush was a very commercial genre film. What was it that interested you about this project?

At first it was a project that Sho Aikawa wanted to do himself, as a director. But he didn't have so much experience as a director, so he went looking for someone he could collaborate with. He asked me because we knew each other from other film projects in the past. I developed the screenplay with Kishu Izuchi, who I worked with on Hysteric and Kokkuri among others, based on the ideas Aikawa gave us. Aikawa made the outline and Izuchi and I wrote the first draft of the script.

It was during the process of financing and pre-production that it was finally decided that I would do it. Aikawa said that he probably wouldn't be suited to direct the film himself. So it was only then that it was decided that I would direct it and that Aikawa would play the lead.

When Hysteric played in Rotterdam a few years ago, I remember you said that you didn't want to give the film an English title, but that it was the distributor's decision. What was your reasoning behind not wanting this title?

There weren't any specific reasons, but I felt that using an English title would be like jumping on the bandwagon. It was popular at the time in Japanese cinema to give your film an English title. I felt a bit embarrassed about giving the film an English title because it was so trendy. The working title was different. The original title translated as "I don't want to let you go until dawn", but the distributor said it was too boring to attract a big crowd (laughs). So they suggested the title Hysteric. Aside from the fact that it was English I didn't actually have too big a problem with it. But it's ironic that almost every film I've done since has had an English title: Rush, Dog Star, Tokyo Erotica, SF Whip Cream (laughs).

The inspiration for Hysteric came from a real-life case in Japan of two Bonnie and Clyde type lovers-on-the-run characters, I believe. Can you tell me a little more about the genesis of this project, and why this story took such a hold on your imagination.

When I heard about the actual incident in question I was very intrigued. It was a young couple who went around vandalising cars, and stealing. The girl pretended to seduce men, and then they robbed them. The two kept wandering around Japan committing crimes, but the girl soon got tired of this lifestyle, so went to see her ex-boyfriend who was a student at Aoyama University. The ex-boyfriend got scared and ran away, so the current boyfriend went and followed her and then spent a week or so in the student's apartment. Then they ran out of money and didn't know what to do, so they decided to rob the person in the next apartment, and ended up killing him. This was the true-life incident.

Was this a particularly well-documented case?

Not particularly. It was covered in the weekly magazines, but it wasn't anything major or sensational. What interested me was that the girl was first after her ex-boyfriend for an escape, but she and the new boyfriend ended up killing his neighbour. How did this happen, this switch? There's a huge gap from the original intention and what they actually did. A lot of things happen due to coincidences in our lives, but in the end it feels like they came out of necessity. It makes you think a lot about destiny. When I saw the portrait of this boy and girl, the boy looked like a rebel, just like the character in the film, and the girl looked very sober and reserved. She was a factory worker who was studying to work at a day care centre. How did they meet and go on to do these things together?

So I did some research and found out that the girl was walking down the street and the boy just happened to be passing by, and that's how they met. They did have some similarities in their background. The girl's parents were divorced and she was raised by her grandmother. The boy's mother was running a small bar. I went to see the factory where the girl was working, which was in a place called Ogaki, in Gifu prefecture, and it was in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by rice fields, and the factory was still in existence, but it was closed already. The whole thing looked like something from the early Showa period [note: post-1926], a complete anachronism.

It made me think that maybe there is something in me that makes me interested in this sort of thing. I got a real "early Showa" impression from these two. They were like a forgotten existence in this time, but they were travelling around acting as if everything else that happened at the end of the century, this feeling of winding down after a big party, was irrelevant to them. Somehow their existence proved to me that yes, there was still something there.