- 28 January 2005
by Tom Mes
More vital than most men half his age, eighty-year-old Teruo Ishii continues to make films that express their creator's colourful personality. Still best known for his series of Edo-era torture films from the late 1960s, Ishii has worked in a vast range of genres in the course of his six-decade long career. From his early Super Giants films for Shintoho, through his gang and biker films for Toei and his recent independently made ero-guro spectacles, his work has remained as youthful in spirit as the man who made them. Midnight Eye met up with Ishii at the Étrange Festival in Paris, which paid tribute to the man who is referred to at home as the King of Cult.
You've had two retrospectives devoted to you in Europe recently, one at the Far East Film Festival in Udine and the other at the Étrange Festival in Paris. How do you feel about this sudden surge of foreign interest in your work?
I never imagined that one day my films would be seen by foreign audiences, so all I can say is that I'm astounded by it.
Your image outside Japan has been dictated by your films in the Joys of Torture series, but I have the impression that as a result of these retrospectives this is starting to change. People are seeing the variety of films you've made over your career.
Maybe, though they showed quite a few of those torture movies at these retrospectives as well (laughs).
Someone who is a major contributor to this change is Mark Schilling, who programmed the homage in Udine and who wrote about you in his Yakuza Movie Book.
Yes, a lot of this is thanks to Mark Schilling, who introduced a number of my films abroad. Like I said, I never imagined that my films would be shown to foreign audiences, so I'm very grateful to Mark for making it happen.
How and why did you originally enter the world of cinema?
Above all I've always been a great fan of films. In my youth my parents often took me to the movies and I remember that at the time we could see a lot of French films. I was really fascinated by these films and saw a huge number of them and as a result I became interested in working in film myself. I started out as an assistant cameraman and gradually worked my way toward directing.
At the time did you consider filmmaking as simply a job or did you have a more profound interest in it?
It was like a toy (laughs). I was having a lot of fun with it. That's an attitude that never changed for me. When people refer to filmmaking as my job I'm always a bit embarrassed, because I don't consider what I do as anything more than having a great time. When I look at salarymen, who work in their office everyday from 9 to 5, I feel a kind of guilt, because I succeed in making a living simply by having a good time.
You made your directorial debut in the late 1950s at Shintoho studios. How do you look back on those days at Shintoho?
It was without doubt the most joyful period of my professional life. Shintoho was a wonderful company to work for. You only had to show up at the offices twice a month, on the 16th and 30th, to collect your paycheck. All you needed to do in return was suggest one story idea every month. Other than that I was free to do as I pleased, so I went to see a lot of films and theater plays while I worked there.
How did you experience the studio's bankruptcy in 1961?
With great sadness, obviously. Shintoho employees shared a very close camaraderie, one that continued long after the studio went under. To this day we continue to have monthly gatherings of ex-Shintoho staffers, including the ladies that used to work in the studio cafeteria. We are really like a family and none of the surviving employees ever misses a meeting.
You next joined Toei studios. Why them?
Actually I never properly joined Toei. I went freelance and only worked with them on a film-by-film basis.
You worked with many great stars at Toei, including Ken Takakura, Tetsuro Tamba and later Sonny Chiba, who is one of the best-known of these actors outside Japan. How was your relationship with these men at the time?
I'm quite surprised to hear you say that Chiba is so well known, because at Toei the undisputed star was Takakura. Chiba ranked quite a lot lower. He played lead roles, certainly, but Takakura's films were the ones that defined Toei's image. I enjoyed working with all three of them, but I had a close bond with Tamba because we both came from Shintoho. Takakura and I first met at Toei, but we made a lot of films together in that period. Actually, Takakura made more films with me than with any other director.
Your last film for Toei was in 1979, when the studio system was essentially falling apart. That must have been quite a change for you as a filmmaker. You seemed very loyal to the studios you worked for.
I don't remember my last film for Toei very well. It was probably a biker movie, I forgot (laughs). I was never very concerned with the state of the film industry. I had nothing to do with the business side and just made movies when I felt like making them. That I couldn't do it for a studio anymore didn't make any difference to me.
So you never made any distinction between working for the big screen, for TV, and for video?
I didn't change my methods or my attitude when I worked in television. No matter what the medium is, I make films. But it's true that in television for example they have their own unique ways of making films, a way that I quickly realised wasn't for me. I never received a lot of offers from television, but whenever I did I would work the way I worked in film.
You've made a lot of adaptations, of literature as well as of manga. Do you feel that there is a difference between working on an adaptation and working on an original idea?
Not as a director, but as a screenwriter there is a difference. Some screenwriters destroy the original work and then rebuild it to fit their own cinematic needs. It's not a method I prefer to use. I believe that you should stick as closely as possible to the source and respect the original work.
You adapted the work of Edogawa Rampo several times. What are your feelings on Rampo's writing?
I deeply love Rampo's work. It's a frightening but also an exciting and enjoyable experience to immerse yourself in his very mysterious world, and it was that feeling that was at the source of all the adaptations of his work that I've done.
You were a boy when Rampo wrote his stories, in the early Showa period. Do you feel an affinity for his writing on that level as well? Is there a certain nostalgia for the period that comes into to as well?
Every boy from my generation up until the generation of Shinya Tsukamoto, who I get along with very well, has read the work of Edogawa Rampo. His writing was serialised in a magazine called Shonen Club, which was very popular among boys for many years. It's because we all began reading him during our childhoods that we feel very close to Rampo's work.
Many of the film adaptations of his writing combine several of his stories into one narrative. You did the same with your film The Horror of Malformed Men. Is there a certain difficulty in translating his work to the screen?
I wouldn't say that it's difficult. In The Horror of Malformed Men I included his story The Human Chair for example, which is originally very short. You can't pad that out into a feature-length film without creating something very boring, so I combined it with other stories. I think that this is the right way to approach it. Also, in my case, I didn't have many occasions to adapt his writing, so I figured I would include as much as possible whenever I had the chance. There are simply too many wonderful stories of his that I would like to adapt and too few opportunities to adapt them.
In recent years you've been working essentially as an independent filmmaker, in a few instances shooting your films on video. You probably have to make do with much more modest means than in the past but I can imagine that in return you're given a lot of freedom.
Yes, that's very true. A big budget comes with constraints. When someone gives me a lot of money to make a film, they also have a lot of demands. So even though I don't have as much money to make films as I used to, I'm very happy to be working this way now.
The independent films you've made the past few years include two adaptations of Yoshiharu Tsuge's manga, one of Rampo, plus a remake of Nobuo Nakagawa's film Jigoku. These people's works all share the oneiric quality that I feel also marked The Horror of Malformed Men. Since you made these recent films independently, can we conclude that expressing that dreamlike atmosphere is one of your particular interests?
I'm really glad to hear you say that. It's very true that they all share that atmosphere. Their universes are very similar. Nobuo Nakagawa is a much more esteemed director than I am, but he was someone with a very childlike enthusiasm for his work. He had an eternal love for films. Whenever I invited him to come watch one of my films, he would always hang around for a long time afterward to talk about my film and about cinema in general. We even continued on the way to the train station after we left. He never lost his enthusiasm.
You often mention that your dream project is to make a new gangster epic with Ken Takakura, to be entitled Once Upon a Time in Japan. Even if you should not succeed in getting it off the ground, will you continue to make other films?
Oh, of course. But I'm an optimist at heart and I truly believe that I will get to make that film with Takakura. As long as I live I will continue to have faith that it will happen.