Yoichi Sai

1 June 2010
picture: Yoichi Sai


Despite the 17 features to his credit, Yoichi Sai is far too little known in the West. He's the chairman of the Directors Guild of Japan, makes frequent appearances on TV, and is well known for his association with two other auteur heavyweights: Nagisa Oshima, with whom he caught his big break working as an assistant director on In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no Koriida, 1976); and Takeshi Kitano, who Sai cast in his first screen role in his debut feature as a director, Mosquito on the 10th Floor (Jukkai no Mosukito). Sai and Kitano were even cast together as the leaders of the Shinsengumi samurai militia in Oshima's last film, Gohatto / Taboo.

Why Sai, unlike his other two collaborators, hasn't caught on outside of Japan is anyone's guess, but his body of work is even more varied than both, with an oeuvre ranging from stylish noirs and gritty police procedurals to bawdy comedies and family flicks about dogs. His latest film Kamui (Kamui Gaiden), an adaptation of a classic manga, is a departure for him, but is also fairly typical since seemingly everything he does is a departure from his previous work.

It's also well known that Sai is the most prominent Korean-Japanese working in the industry. He is the son of a zainichi Korean father and Japanese mother (his Korean name is Choi Yang-il), and his films, coincidentally or not, frequently explore the issue of marginalized identity in Japanese society. He has a special affinity for working in Okinawa, having shot four films there, and his All Under the Moon (Tsuki wa Dotchi ni Dete Iru) won him a host of awards in 1993, including the Kinema Junpo prize for best film of the year. Dealing with a Korean-Japanese taxi driver who falls for a Filipina bar hostess, the film was one of the very first to deal with Japan's working-class immigrants in a positive way and the country's casual forms of everyday racism in a direct manner - one need only look at cinematic depictions of zainichi Koreans in Japanese cinema before Sai's film to realize what a landmark his film was. Midnight Eye met up with Sai at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, where this film and most of his other works screened as part of his first retrospective in the West.

What is it like to watch your films again here? Has it been a while since you've watched some of the older ones?

It's been very stimulating. It's like the person I was and the person I currently am are facing each other, and the two versions of myself aren't necessarily always communicating well. At least that's how I'm viewing it now, how it's making me realize what I was concerned with back then. Of course, there's a connection between these older films and how I make movies today. We're still the same person, after all, and my first films have influenced my current style in many ways. But at the same time, seeing these films again have made me see anew how I've changed. It's been very interesting to see the large gap in what I'm preoccupied with today versus what I used to be preoccupied with.

For example, Mosquito on the 10th Floor was my first work, my virginal work, so I remember now how totally absorbed I was in the making of that film. But some of the seeds that were planted in that movie have developed over the duration of that "gap" that I'm talking about. Many different things develop over that span of time, especially considering that this development is concurrent with the changes of the life of a single person. I think the kind of strength that I displayed in Mosquito on the 10th Floor has gradually changed over the years, but the type of will I displayed in that movie - the types of things I thought only I could express - have basically remained unchanged. What has changed is how I express my concerns.

picture: films by Yoichi Sai

Could you elaborate a little more on what ways you believe your thinking and concerns have or haven't changed?

Looking at my older films, the filmmaking technique isn't necessarily unskilled, but there are instances in some films where I perversely shot something in a very simple way. I tried to avoid being an overly visual filmmaker by taking a straightforward route in these films. I could see this in The Pig's Retribution, and All Under the Moon too. I had been developing my filmmaking style up until that point, but when I saw All Under the Moon again, I realize I was able to put the method aside to be able to make that film.

How and why did you first become interested in cinema?

It was part-time work. It wasn't like I was thinking that I wanted to make films or I wanted to surround myself in a filmmaking environment. I was simply told, "Here's a job for you. Take it." My high school senior told me that there was a job that fit me, and I took it. It just so happened that that job was on a film set. I was a grip, carrying around lights. My first job as an assistant director was on a popular TV series about private eyes.

Your first assignment as an AD on a film was for Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses, which was somewhat controversial since you were so young. Can you speak about that experience a bit?

I was the youngest guy on that set but was made first AD. That was Oshima's decision. In my mind, I was pretty conflicted, since I knew I was being promoted above my seniors, but I felt pretty proud as well. So it was a very interesting experience for me.

In the Realm of the Senses was in a very secret pre-production stage when I was approached to work on it. I actually took on the job without knowing that the film was going to be a hardcore pornographic Japanese production. Koji Wakamatsu approached me and told me that they were going to make a movie that was going to change Japan, and asked me if I'd like to be a part of that. I didn't know much about it, but the story sounded intriguing, so I said yes. And that film became In the Realm of the Senses. I just want to add that Wakamatsu was an executive producer for that film, the first and only job he did for Oshima, but they were friends before that. And while their films are very different, they are both a part of that minority of filmmakers who make films that are heretic towards Japan and Japanese cinema. Part of their friendship developed from the fact that they enjoyed the same "minority" status in Japan. Us young guys were constantly around that environment with Oshima and Wakamatsu, and once Wakamatsu was picked to produce the film, he in turn picked me to be first AD.

Has Oshima's influence on you and your style been very strong?

I get asked this question a lot in Japan, and to tell you the truth: very little, if at all. I don't think that I've been influenced at all by the Oshima-style of making movies. I love young Oshima's movies, and I also love Taboo, which I happen to appear in. I have a very long friendship and relationship of trust with Nagisa Oshima, but I didn't learn or study anything from him in terms of filmmaking style or techniques, and that's how Oshima likes it. Everyone should be different, he says, and he doesn't have any great joy if an Oshima copycat were to emerge. I'm the same way. Most of the assistant directors who work under me become directors themselves, but they don't take even a fraction of my style with them. I don't want them to imitate the way my imagination works. As assistants, their job is to realize the products of my imagination, but it's not my desire to prejudice their imaginations. To be honest, many of my ADs are similar in personality, but they are all unique in their own ways. If no two people have the same face, then the same can be said for the way they think.

You mentioned Taboo. Just out of curiosity, how did you come to be cast in that film as Kondo? Had you had any previous acting experience?

Oshima called me on New Year's Day. I tell everyone this, but Oshima is a genius at getting what he wants from people by making them feel good about themselves. So he tells me on the phone, "An actor can never be a general." In films about the Japanese military, for example with the Shinsengumi, Oshima has argued that the person who plays a general must also be a general in real life. Actors are always pursuing their own individual world and reality, and so they don't make effective generals. They can't be captains. And so Oshima tells me, "You're a captain. So play the role of the captain for me." He's really skilled at making people feel good so he can get what he wants out of them. This kind of behavior is usually construed negatively, but he does it in a genuine way that makes people really feel good about themselves, and then he pulls them to where he wants them to be. He's a true genius at this. I was pulled in and worked with him in this way.

Your latest feature is Kamui, which is a change of pace for you in some ways. How did you first get on board this project?

When I finished Blood and Bones, the Shochiku producer who I frequently work with, and who worked on that film, initiated some discussions for new projects over the course of a little over a year. But we just couldn't find common ground as to what to pursue next. There's a Japanese proverb that goes, "Too short for a belt, too long for a sleeve tie," which in this case means that our ideas for the next project were in disagreement. We kept talking for about a year, but our thoughts could never congeal. So this producer then casually proposed, "How about something like The Legend of Kamui?" He wasn't particularly serious about doing this idea, and he proposed it because if we compromised our two diverging trains of thought, we would have settled on a project that neither of us would have been interested in. But when he suggested something like Kamui, I instantly jumped on board. It's a project that was established after three seconds of deliberation.

Kamui is a classic manga that has been adapted many times with varying degrees of success in a variety of formats. What did you think you could bring to this relatively old manga?

Kamui is a 40-year-old manga, so I read it in my youth and teens. He was a new hero for our generation. He wasn't like Superman or Dirty Harry, but he was definitely a very lonely hero. But that was some forty-odd years ago, so the question is: why turn such an old manga into a movie today? My answer is that today's young people are worried not just about their identities, but their lifestyles. Many are having great difficulty finding their own place in life. I think this longing is a specific "voice" of this generation. In other words, when I was a young adult, my generation thought it was normal for every person to find his own place in life. It's taken for granted that every person should carve his own path in whatever he does, but now there are many more people who don't know how to proceed in finding that course. Many will just gravitate to whatever is popular, and if another trend catches on, people will then switch courses. There are many more young people now, both men and women, who can't find their own life "policy," and this is a result of a general unhappiness with their living situations. They don't really understand themselves, and it's hard for them to think of what they want to do in life.

So Kamui for them is a sort of companion. He's strong, but lonely; he's strong, but his spirit is occasionally weak. Of course, young people today don't carry swords or learn ninjutsu or fight others regularly, but by observing Kamui's strength and weakness, they can face their own strengths and weaknesses. I thought there was a need for this kind of story. It might not be completely accurate to call Kamui a hero in this sense, but for our modern times, I think he still possesses the clout of a new hero for Japanese youth. Kamui has a very different value for today's boys and girls, men and women, than he did forty years ago, but the times are always changing. Not just changing, but repeating and revolving through different periods of history, so the old values never really disappear. They return in different forms, and I think that's the sense one gets from Kamui today.

picture: films by Yoichi Sai

It's interesting how strongly you're attempting to connect the themes of a ninja manga like Kamui into the existential problems of the contemporary climate.

There are still lots of after-effects in Japan from the subprime loan debacle and the "Lehman Shock." Young people today don't have much hope for the future, or at least, it's increasingly difficult for them to see a bright future. They have less and less choice over what kinds of careers they can lead, and even when they go job hunting, there aren't any jobs being offered. And the parents who have typically supported them are no longer wealthy. I wanted to issue the challenge to them, "You alone have to find yourself in this kind of environment."

Virtually all of your films' characters are outsiders in some way, and Kamui seems to be an archetype of this. Why are you attracted to these kinds of characters?

Many in Japan and the rest of the world think that I choose these sorts of characters because I'm a Korean-Japanese, but this isn't the case. I'm interested in the relationship between the "outside" and "inside" of society not because I'm a Korean in Japan. What draws me to these relationships is the time and space of these people and their habits - the human drama, if you will. It's not because of my being Korean-Japanese that I'm interested in them; what interests me is the sort of drama that emerges from their particular situations and stories. In some cases, these stories can be very serious and intense, and in other cases, they can be comedies. They don't necessarily have to be tragic stories because of the milieu. I like to make stories that will make people laugh, too.

On that note, if we could classify all your films into genres, it's hard to say that you've ever done the same genre twice.

I'm what you'd call a "non-genre" director, along with Takeshi Kitano and Junji Sakamoto. I think some publication called me a Japanese Spielberg, but that's bullshit. I've made movies about dogs and ninjas, film noirs like Let Him Rest in Peace, and movies that might be similar to Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. But the thematic thread that runs through them all is what we were talking about earlier: I'm most interested in the people who exist on the border of our social structure.

You've classified Let Him Rest in Peace (Tomo yo Shizuka ni Nemure, 1985) as a film noir, but you could look at it as a kind of fusion western, as well.

You're absolutely right. I didn't think of it that way before, but seeing it again here recently, I was struck by how much it resembled a western. I think that film and MARKS [Makusu no Yama, 1995] are two films that I view quite differently today. MARKS especially seems to be influenced by westerns I saw a very long time ago, or at least by a faint memory of these films residing inside me. At the time I was making Let Him Rest in Peace, I was not conscious of those movies at all and wasn't making the film with that kind of image in mind. But seeing my films now after 20 years, I thought, wow, they really do have many aspects of the western genre. In another example, watching MARKS yesterday, I was strongly reminded of a montage scene I saw in Sergei Eisenstein's October when I was a kid. It left a strong impression on me somewhere and influenced my thinking in these films in some way as well.

In many ways, these films about the universality of male friendship are like Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, but now I see I was kind of making them unconsciously 20 years earlier. Movies are terrifically interesting, and the world of movies and movie genres is equally large, but their parts overlap each other frequently. So the films I saw as a kid - those westerns, or films my parents dragged me to like October - have left their mark on me as a professional filmmaker. Even if I have no recollection of having watched those films, I feel they've strongly imprinted themselves somewhere on me.

Throughout your films, it's difficult to discern a consistent visual style because you work in so many genres, but would it be accurate to say that you seem to favor wide-angle shots over close-ups?

More or less, yes. I should add that my first movies used wide-angle shots, but I didn't use a telephoto lens to shoot at a great distance. I still don't use that lens very much today, preferring natural wide-angle shots. Those shots were the result of trial and error, but I wouldn't go as far as to say I was experimenting with film style. It was more a personal trial to see what I liked. But you're right, I used a lot of wide-angle shots in my films, and still do today. There isn't really a deep reason for its use, though. I just reacted to the moment and thought that a wide-angle shot would work best in many occasions. It goes back to how my way of thinking through films was established at such an early stage of my career. I never realized how I was thinking about the use of such techniques back then.

Your films tend to feature heavy physical violence, where people are often fighting with their fists and bodies. Is there a special reason you're drawn to this kind of violence in your films?

Well, when I was younger, sexuality and violence were presented to us like a natural pair. When I was watching foreign films as a young adult, there were very high levels of sex and violence. Sex and violence were often conflated into a matching set, and even though I don't think of them like this today, it was very normal for us to believe that for humans to subsist, there has to be sex and violence. So I think there's a connection between the type of physical violence in my films and the type of violence my generation associated with sex. I feel that my stories might create violence, but that violence in turn creates stories or human drama, as well.

Would it be fair to say that rather than your sole roman porno film, Sex Crime (Seiteki Hanzai, 1983), influencing your later works, you were drawn to the subject matter from the beginning?

That's right. If pushed I'd say that it's definitely the latter. I don't think I could make that film now, but I was drawn to roman porno at the time. It's actually based on a real insurance fraud scandal where someone faked their murder to collect a payout. I used that event as the basic plot. It's set in a small auto body shop which is having problems getting customers and might go out of business. The owner of that shop has a wife and a mistress who live with him under the same roof. But he needs money and the debt collectors are hounding him, so this owner says he's going to fake his death and collect the insurance money. They need a body to make this work, so they kill an innocent person and dress him up as the owner who dies in an accident. These sorts of cases were pretty sensational but not uncommon at the time, so I used that story as the model for my own.

picture: films by Yoichi Sai

Many filmmakers don't like to view themselves in nationalistic terms, but have you felt you had to prove yourself as a Korean-Japanese living and working in Japan? Was this a motivation for you to overcome any perceived prejudices?

None at all, actually. That wasn't one of the reasons why I wanted to become a filmmaker. I often chuckle at how people interpret any perceived success I have. For example, when I go to Korea, journalists there paint me as a success story, as someone who overcame the racism of Japanese society to become a successful filmmaker and the chairman of the Directors Guild of Japan. These sensational journalists always made a big fuss over me, but I've denied all of that. I didn't get into this world and become a director for those reasons. It's true that I'm the kind of person who thinks about his life and why I chose the life I lead, and films help me think through this. But I also like to view this profession as a way of making a living, as a way to eat. I think it's fun to look at films in this way. So I don't get any energy from viewing my profession in these nationalistic terms, or by pitting myself against society.

As a foreigner who has lived in Japan and is working in the Japanese film industry, though, you're in a position to comment on situations in Japanese society that others are not. Are you conscious of this, or do you sense a stronger feeling of responsibility to tell stories that have a strong social orientation?

I'm frequently asked to shoulder that kind of responsibility. Korean-Japanese who can speak out or belong to special organizations often ask me to take a strong position. But I always refuse. That's not why I make movies. The cynical thinking and sense of irony in my films reflect something that I as an individual was born with, and it's not something handed down to me by my people or race. To me, the easiest people in the world to understand are my parents: my father, who happens to be Korean, and my Japanese mother. I come from a mixed-race background, so to me that's what's interesting. I'm familiar with both cultures and have both cultures within me, but I don't completely affirm either one. I don't recognize one or the other more, but I navigate a complicated path where I agree and disagree with both, like a "hybrid." The hybrid and the view of the hybrid I think is what's most interesting.

Two years ago you made Soo, your first feature outside of Japan. What was this experience like?

Really interesting! I want to make films all over Asia, to be honest, so if I'm offered the opportunity, I'll grab it, but I don't get many offers to make films outside of Japan. For some reason, I got approached by this eager young producer to make a film in Korea, so I jumped at it. The story was based on a comic, though, so I thought maybe I wasn't right for the job. I rewrote the shooting script instead, and the movie that resulted was completely different from the original project. It's a movie that has an air of contradiction to it. When Korean audiences or critics see the film, they say that it's not a Korean movie. But it's not a Japanese movie either. It became a movie that kind of drifts about in the waters in between the two countries. About two million people saw the film in Korea, so it was a modest hit, but there was a large segment, including cinephiles, who said it wasn't a Korean movie.

Something like the fusion in Nikkatsu's "borderless action" series in the 1950 and 60s?

Even different from that. It's not a traditional Japanese action movie. Even when I watch it, I just think it's a weird movie. I don't know why it ended up that way. It's a strange film.

You said you wanted to work with all of Asia, but did you have any other country particularly in mind?

Of course Korea, but also Hong Kong. Although, saying that, most production is now in mainland China. Also Taipei. I think I can work with this area, China and Taiwan. In fact, there have been a few proposals between these countries and myself, though, for some reason or another, it never worked out. I was approached to direct a remake of Quill in Taiwan, though I refused that offer. I really wanted to make a film in Hong Kong, but the industry there is in terrible shape. Nobody does independent work there anymore, and everybody's run over to the mainland. It's probably impossible for me to work in Hong Kong now.

Your career has spanned, and continues to span, decades. What is one of the biggest changes you've experienced in the Japanese film industry since when you first entered over 30 years ago?

The Japanese film industry has lost a lot of its strength compared to even 30 years ago. Today, you can't make it relying on the strength of movie studios alone. You have to go through the TV stations and the IT industry, and it's becoming increasingly difficult to make films without their cooperation. At the same time, audiences today are distant from the history of Japanese film that draws from a well of rich and varied narratives. They want stories that everybody already knows and films that no one will be troubled by. Creating a film that purely reflects one's own worldview is supported at places like the Rotterdam film festival, but upon returning to Japan that support is gone. To put it bluntly, there are an increasing amount of filmmakers who are known in Rotterdam but not Japan. For me, I think it's better to be well known at Rotterdam than Japan since that represents the opportunity to be internationally recognized, but the commercialism and anti-commercialism of the Japanese film industry has created a problem for itself. People who prefer to watch TV dramas over films don't want to watch serious movies, for the most part. I think this has resulted in the narrowing of the breadth of the Japanese film world.

Shifting to some of your other professional work now. You've been the chairman of the Directors Guild of Japan for six years now, and you follow in a long line of distinguished predecessors - Minoru Murata, Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Heinosuke Gosho, Nagisa Oshima, Kinji Fukasaku, and, briefly, Yoji Yamada. How did you come to be selected? Why did you want to take on this responsibility and what do you believe to be your role?

It's a basic election process. I was chosen, rather than really wanting it. I should explain that in Japan, I'm often called a "fighting director." That's because I'm not afraid to speak my mind, be it against the government or studios. The members of the guild believed this was a good trait for the president to have. There are many others who also believe that we don't need a "fighting president," but rather a negotiator who will get along with these other factions, and these members didn't vote for me. At the moment, there are more members who want me to fight than those who don't. I don't know when that will change, though there are elections every two years, and this is my third term.

picture: films by Yoichi Sai

The DGJ recently made a film called Cut, which argued for director's rights to copyright. Was this screened widely?

We tried to secure larger distribution, and there were a few people in foreign countries who valiantly saw it, but the issue of copyright still isn't very well understood in Japanese society. It was a very interesting film, though there hasn't been much effect from it yet in helping us to achieve our goals. But we know that results can't be expected immediately, so we hope that people will watch Cut ten or twenty years from now and come to understand what it's about.

Were you involved in its creation in any way?

Of course, as the chairman of the DGJ I was involved, even though I wasn't the director or a part of the actual production process. But I had to get a lot of money together to make it happen (laughs). I'm not listed as the producer, but it's the kind of movie that can't be made without a deal of money, so I was a money collector.

Does the DGJ's functions extend into television?

Definitely. Copyright laws vary according to the country, but our thought is that directors should possess the rights to their films. The company can have some copyright, but the directors should as well. Film companies in Japan typically have the attitude that they don't need directors, and don't want to give directors copyright. They think it's just a product of their company.

The role of a director on a TV show is different from that of a film, at least in the States, where the writer-producer is more of a creative force behind a show rather than a director. Is this different than in Japan?

Yes. In Japan, the director runs the show whether it be a film or a TV program. This might be part of the cultural history of Japan, where Japanese visual culture has always privileged the director even if, according to laws, we have no authority to copyright. But while we have no ownership rights, we are legally called the "authors" of the films. It's a major contradiction to be called the creator of the work but not be entitled to copyright. Actually, the old laws stated that we were the authors and the legal owners of the films, but these laws were changed in 1970. The recently-ousted Liberal Democratic Party and the film industry at the time collaborated against the directors to change these laws and take away their privilege of copyright. We're asking them to change it back, to give directors their rights.

You've been making appearances on television the last few years as a commentator, which is rare for directors not named Kitano. Do you intend to create a TV alter ego for yourself?

Not at all. My role on TV is actually very similar to Oshima's. He would comment on all sorts of social events and changes in society as a Japanese film director. I do something like that, where if asked to comment, I give my two cents. But Takeshi is a comedian, and his appearance on TV emphasizes his comedic reputation. He's a very sharp entertainer, and he knows exactly where to stop himself before going too far and crossing the line with what he says. He really understands just how far he should go, right up to that line of what's acceptable to say and what's not. Oshima and I sometimes cross this line, and then we hear it from others (laughs).

You're now also a professor at Takarakuza University of Art and Design. How has this experience affected you?

There are many interesting and uninteresting things about university education, so I'm still thinking about it. But it's a very small university, so I'd like to reform it and significantly raise its status. I'm going to continue to put a lot of effort into this over the next two years. I plan to leave once I feel the style of the university has changed. Everyone is struggling hard right now, from the students to the teachers, so I'd like to make it a small but strong university, and after that, I'll say goodbye to that life.

What do you hope to teach filmmakers of the future?

Spirit. Technique isn't very difficult to learn. I want each person to grow under the strength of their own imagination. What I want to teach them is that there are many steps to this methodology of finding your own way. Frankly speaking, technical instruction can all be taught in no more than three months. You don't need to go to film school for four years. Three months is plenty.