- 13 October 2006
by Nicholas Rucka
Working on the forefront of Japanese visual effects as a technician for many years, Takashi Yamazaki took his first stab at directing with 2000's sci-fi kids flick Juvenile. Showing that he wasn't ready to abandon the sci-fi genre just yet, he mashed up what appeared to be his favorite plot points and visuals from the past 20 years of sci-fi cinema into 2002's Takeshi Kaneshiro star vehicle Returner.
Not wanting to risk being labeled a single-genre director, though, Takashi Yamazaki turns in his first non-science fiction film to date - and coincidentally his most popular and critically successful work - with Always: Sunset on Third Street (Always: Sanchome no Yuhi), a feel-good drama about community, family, and optimism in a hardscrabble post-war Tokyo neighborhood. Midnight Eye sat down with director Takashi Yamazaki on the eve of the US premiere of Always, to discuss his history as a visual effects artist, his interest in and influence by jidai-geki, and what the future holds.
I want to talk about your background first. You started out doing visual effects (VFX), right? How did you get started doing that?
At first, I'd seen films like Star Wars and that made me want to do this kind of work. The only thing was, I wasn't sure how you would go about becoming an effects technician. I had no idea at all. So I went to Tokyo and went to a trade school to study, but I started working at a commercial production house on the side.
When was that?
During my sophomore year of college; I was about 19 years old. Even today, there's much more money to do commercials than films. So there was something appealing to me about doing this kind of work, it would give me the opportunity to try my hand at many different things like model work and even computer graphics stuff. So I figured, why not try it as a part-time job. When they asked me if I wanted to try out some effects stuff, I was into it.
Did you think about being a director at that point?
Perhaps a little bit, but... I really just wanted to try doing some special effects work, to be honest, and, in fact, that company had just built a sound stage and got a motion-control camera and they didn't have anyone who knew how to use it. At that time, there was a lot of work doing 'exhibition visuals'.
It's a kind of promotional video work for theme parks, fairs, and other exhibition places. To make that kind of visual work costs money. But in between this kind of work we were taking on some film stuff here and there and little by little we started shifting over to film.
So when did you think that you'd like to become a film director?
Well... the kind of films that I wanted make - things in space, with aliens and robots and that kind of thing - really weren't being made in Japan at that time. So I would write a script and hand it out as something that I wanted to do and, in fact, there was no other way of doing this if, as a director, you didn't take responsibility for making it. It was because of this that I basically started as a director.
The producer from Robot [the production company which made Always: Sunset on Third Street, and the intensely popular Bayside Shakedown series and its spin-offs - NR] was an acquaintance, so I gave it to him to see what he'd think of it. He liked it, we made it, and that's pretty much how I became a director.
That was for Juvenile, right?
Yes, but actually around that same time there was a different film that I wanted to make but it was too costly. It was a film that I could best call a "Japanese Star Wars". So that script made the rounds but it just wasn't possible to make it, so we made Juvenile instead.
You still haven't made this?
No, not yet. [Laughs] I'm not sure when I'll make it.
Considering your background in SFX, does that affect your choice of projects to do?
Do you mean that in this area I'll do this effect and this area I can do that?
Specifically, does it affect what kind of stories you want to tell?
Well, for most directors, when they are preparing to make their film they'll sit down with the effects director and talk about what can be achieved and what should be done to meet their aim; without doing so it's hard for them to know how much they can do within their budget. It's harder for them to know what is realistically possible to do in their film. For me, though, since I know all about SFX, I can tell what can be achieved with a certain budget and what can't be. For example in Always, there's that long opening shot and I knew how to achieve it within my budget. I can run the calculations.
Knowing while you write the screenplay that you can make the film for X amount of money.
Exactly. But more than that, for the typical filmmaker, it will cost more than it will for me to make it. I know all that when I'm still in the writing stage.
But you're not actually the SFX director on your own films, right?
I am loosely the SFX director... In that I make all of the choices, ultimately, saying this is what we should go with and whatnot. "Let's make a model for this and let's use CGI there", etc. Since I draw my own storyboards and then put them into computer graphics, I know through this method what should be done on computer and what should be done through models and actual photography. I can do that all myself, in my own head.
You do that all at Shiro Gumi? [Takashi Yamazaki's own production house.]
Is Shiro Gumi only a film production house?
No, we do a lot of commercials and actually 'game movies'.
Those are the 'cinematics' in videogames?
Shifting gears, who would you say are your biggest filmmaking - or director - influences?
Hayao Miyazaki and Akira Kurosawa. I think those are the two who made consistently the first, the best, and the most exciting films out there. They both somehow managed to straddle the cinematic world of entertainment and art and are, therefore, the biggest influence on me.
Outside of film directors, who would you say? Writers, etc.?
I love books and read voraciously... Hmm... Well, in so far as manga is concerned, I love Katsuhiro Otomo. He's been a major influence on me... And then there's Shuhei Fujisawa. Do you know him?
He's very famous. He writes Japanese period novels. He's very famous for his novel that the film Twilight Samurai was based on. Yeah, I read a lot of his stuff.
Returning to the topic of special effects, your new film Always: Sunset on Third Street is by far the most 'normal' of your films. What I mean is that it isn't sci-fi or fantasy, but is meant to be a human drama. Can you talk about your use of CGI in the film to recreate the world of 1950s Japan? And more than that, considering how powerful of a tool CGI really is, what is your philosophy about when and how to use it in filmmaking?
Up until now, using SFX has sort of been my focus. But it seems to become less interesting to me. There's certainly a power to be found in an actor's performance and I thought that if I could combine the performance with CGI, then I could create something even more powerful. So that's been kind of my guiding philosophy lately. But this is the same with anything really, if you make only one aspect like 'color' or 'effects' or something that people are supposed to see, well, that isn't enough to make a good film. Just using VFX for the sake of VFX isn't going to make the item on screen any more interesting and therefore, considering my VFX background, I have a very strong vision of what I want and so in that respect, it's a very powerful weapon. That said, you have to use this weapon with great skill otherwise the audience will wonder why it's being used.
But considering how CGI has really lowered the cost in doing effects and therefore allows filmmakers of modest means to achieve their vision, I think that we're just heading into a very exciting time. This is something that we've seen time and again; whenever a new technology is introduced it's very interesting to see where it's going to be taken. We witnessed this with the advent of sound, of color, etc. That's the reason why I feel CGI is a good thing.
I can understand where you're coming from with that opinion, but in Hollywood and the US filmmaking world, as witnessed by George Lucas's work on the new Star Wars films, what is actually shot on location just doesn't seem to be as important as it once was. The fact that it can be changed in 'post,' it's all starting to look more like a form of animation - but one where the shooting script isn't as important as it once was since it can be rewritten in 'post.' What do you think of this?
That's why you got those new Star Wars films, isn't it? [Laughs] The original film was shot in England. There was a vision and something was being made. With the new films, well, that's not there. Because you get the feeling that it was now possible to make anything and that the location shooting just wasn't as important as a result of this. But let's be honest here, what the audience wants to see is an actor's performance and a person's performance isn't technology. Sure you can be wowed by an effect but what people really want to see is what happens to a character and how they are feeling; that's why they come to the movies. Because these things are no longer there, you get the recent Star Wars films.
It doesn't seem to have life...
It doesn't have any feelings you can relate to.
How long was the entire production cycle on Always?
Three months for pre-production, three months for shooting, and six months for post-production.
That's unusual for a Japanese production.
Well, we really had no crew working on the film, actually. The more people you have on set, the faster you can move. We didn't have that but we did have people who were very skilled at what they did.
I've noticed while watching through your films again that there are some thematic similarities between them, specifically within the ideas of a time of transition or change or flux, of growing up. For example, Juvenile deals with the robot and the children growing up; in Returner the people come from a future of war to stop this future from happening and in Always you have the story of the little boy who comes and changes a man's life. What attracts you to this theme?
I guess it's because people come 'into their own' during times of flux. There's something very interesting and satisfying about watching this, so I guess that's why I am interested in it. Naturally it's interesting to watch how people will respond or behave given different situations, so that could be why I'm interested in it... And that is probably the reason why it has become a kind of theme for me. It is possible for everyone to change. The main character always grows up and changes in a positive way. This is an important thing to portray, I feel, because it relates to everyone who watches the film: "We can change and change for the better". That's an idea that I want to spread.
This is connected to what you're saying, but there is a real sense of fond memories for the past, a kind of wistfulness if you will, in your films.
Yeah, I even notice this about my own works, whether it is in set design or costumes, I find it important.
Because I like it... [Laughs] I always work with the same 'team' on my films and the folks in the art department like that sense of past, fond memories. None of us really like that clinical, clean world look. If you talk about our blood types - type A and type B - I'd say that we're mainly blood type A so and we all like a world with a lot of information and content. [Laughs]
That's as good a reason as any. [Laugh] It's interesting how you manage to use the newest technology to make your films, but what I've noticed is that your films also feature a lot of technology, in general, in them. For example, the robot and time travel technology in Juvenile; the whole point of Returner is about present and future technology, and in fact is just about the power of technology; and in Always, technology, surprisingly, has a very large presence: the refrigerator, the TV, the building of Tokyo Tower, etc.
This is interesting. I've never been asked about this in any of my interviews, even in Japan... This is a good question.
What is technology's significance to you and, perhaps it isn't intentional, but why is there so much new technology in your films? What would be your thematic reasoning for this?
I don't think it's intentional... Well, in my VFX line of work, technology is of great importance. When I entered the commercial company there was the optical printer - you know, where you can photograph film you've shot and use it for composite effects and titles and the like. But now, there's digital editing and you can do it so much faster and with the computer so many things have been rendered far simpler: "Wow, I can do this all by myself!" Even now, it's gotten so that people can do these things at home; the potential for what can be achieved has widened greatly. Really, anything can be done now. "Woah, you can do this?!" - that sort of happiness and surprise at what can be achieved through new technology is a cool thing. That time when technology changes things is an exciting time, I think. That's something that shows up in my films, like when the first TV arrives, everyone is impressed and really excited! That situation is something that I like to have in my films. Capturing that moment of positive change is a really important thing, I think, while also showing that the widening potential for new and better things is out there.
Yeah, the kids in your films are always super excited by the new technology, "That's cool!"
All of your main characters in your films, seem to have a great acumen for technology, they can repair or invent technology quite well.
They're talented people.
They all have a lot of skills. In the case of Always, everyone has great skill at something...
I like people who are talented. I've thought about this quite a bit, but I like people who have a talent or ability to do things. I like to work with talented people and talk with them. I don't have time for people who are untalented! [Laughs] So, since I like talented people it's only natural that those would be the characters that I write for a movie. That's seen in all of the characters in Always.
If you like talented people, by all evidence, you seem to despise people who complain or talk trash.
I don't like people who rain on people's parade... Yeah, but it's easier said than done.
What are you working on now and what are your plans for the future?
Right now I have about four scripts that I am working on. These cover a wide spectrum but what I want to do now is a jidai-geki, a samurai movie. I want to do a movie about a person's route and whereas Always is kind of a 'much ado about nothing' low-key movie, this time I want to do a story about a character who knows that he will die tomorrow. There's no stress in Always... I wonder why? Anyway, I want to tell a story about wanting to live.
You've mentioned that you are influenced by manga and when one watches your films you can see that. If I were to compare Juvenile and Returner, while Juvenile is supposed to be a kid's movie, I would say that it is more serious than Returner, I think.
At any rate, in Always the fact that the father/owner of 'Suzuki Auto' gets incredibly pissed at Roku-chan (a.k.a. Mutsuko) and blows his stack in such a manga manner - literally blowing the doors of the auto shop off their tracks and steam coming out of his ears, etc - that's much more comic book-like than a film of this pitch would have and it seems to come out of nowhere. Why did you decide to treat it this way?
Hmm... Well, originally I'd planned to give it a much more serious treatment but when I spoke with my crew members about it, they seemed to feel that if it were treated too seriously it would be much too intense. Furthermore, he could be the kind of character that the way he blows up could be a form of entertainment and it would give the audience a way of understanding where he was coming from.
At any rate, I wanted to make Always in a manner that was much more serious than my other works but after working with my staff it started changing into something a little more playful. But I knew that my target audience would be an older generation and so in this respect I had to make sure that the film didn't devolve into manga. Actually, the term manga is a pejorative: "Isn't that just manga-like?".
You mean as a form of criticism?
Yeah. For me, if someone says that it's manga-like it's a plus - like, it feels like anime or whatever and so I want to see it. It's a good thing. But for this older generation it's really a minus and would keep people away, so we had to watch it. In this respect I was really concerned about that scene you mention.
Rather than being called 'reality' is it supposed to be an exaggeration to show his psychological state?
If that's supposed to be the case, you'll wonder what it's about afterwards. Take the part when Chagawa says he can repair the TV but ends up dismantling it totally and the whole community that is there to watch the wrestling match gets pissed. It's an exaggeration.
As a final note, is there anything you want to mention?
Always isn't meant to be only a nostalgic film but is meant to show a time when there was a lot of energy and positive thinking. Nowadays, the energy level seems to have fallen and there's more pessimism if you compare it to the past, so I want people to ask themselves what should we do from here on out? This movie is set 50 years ago, right? I want people to ask themselves how they want to live during the next 50 years. If people ask themselves this sort of question, I'll be really happy. In fact, this film isn't really about the past, but the future. People need to take control of their lives. I want people to do that. I made the film for this reason.