Yoshihiko Matsui

22 August 2008
picture: Yoshihiko Matsui


From his 8mm debut Rusty Empty Can in 1979, Yoshihiko Matsui emerged as one of the towering figures of the 1980s jishu eiga underground scene, alongside other familiar names including his early collaborator Sogo Ishii. His masterpiece cult movie Noisy Requiem (Tsuito no Zawameki) is an epic 3-hour trawl through the daily lives and sexual peccadilloes of the misfits and outcasts who inhabit Osaka's Kamagasaki district. Described by its new DVD distributor as "a soulful hardcore fantasy", it was one of the most talked-about titles of its day. And then its director disappeared from audience view for almost a quarter of a century. Now he's back with a new film entitled Where Are We Going? (Doko ni Iku no?), which candidly and un-sensationalistically portrays a burgeoning romance between a transsexual bar hostess and a gay shop assistant.

Midnight Eye caught up with Matsui to talk about his new film, and to cast a nostalgic eye back over the making of Noisy Requiem, which has just been released on DVD in Japan for the very first time, in an English-subtitled, HD re-mastered collectors edition with a raft of extras, including a documentary in which members of the original cast and crew go back and visit the film's locations.

Midnight Eye would like to express thanks to Ryohei Masuoka of Geta Films for his invaluable help in coordinating this interview, which was conducted by email.

It's been 23 years between Noisy Requiem (Tsuito no Zawameki) and Where Are We Going? (Doko ni Iku no?) Why did it take so long for this new film to reach the screen?

With Noisy Requiem I managed to thoroughly depict the contradictory aspects of love and hatred, beauty and ugliness, passion and violence, all within one movie. Luckily a good number of people have seen the film. However, producers in Japan didn't seem to like it so much. I don't really understand why this was. After I finished Noisy Requiem, I wrote a good number of screenplays and took them to production companies, but none of them said "Okay, let's start this project." So I couldn't make any movies during this period. Its not like I was shirking away from filmmaking at all.

23 Years seems a long time to be away from filmmaking though. What were you doing in the meantime, and how did it feel to be on a film set again?

I continued writing scripts. Aside from that, I went to a lot of art exhibitions, because I like paintings, and also sculpture, block printing, and contemporary art. Paintings in particular give me inspiration and inform the basis of a lot of my images. When I didn't go to exhibitions, I would generally spend the day looking at art books or prints. Also, since I've lived in Kyoto, it's been a great environment to enjoy all the events that take place across the four seasons, the different scenery, the temples and shrines, the traditional culture and food, etc. Also, I watch a lot of sports. I am especially interested in soccer now. Experiencing great culture, art, sports, or food leaves a very deep impression in me. And for a person working in an expressive or creative medium, I think it is really important to be constantly stimulated and exposed to such culture, to provide sustenance and form to your own creative activity.

As for my new movie, Where Are We Going?, first of all I would like to express my immense gratitude to Mr. Yoichi Kobayashi, the film's executive producer and the president of Ace Deuce Entertainment, who encouraged me to direct it. The fact that he likes the movie is the most pleasing thing for me. Furthermore, it was officially selected for the 30th Moscow International Film Festival, so I traveled with him to Russia this June. It was the most unforgettable experience of my life. So I am sure now that it was a good thing that I didn't quit the film world.

Where Are We Going? has a very unusual theme. Where did you get the idea from?

It's not an unusual theme at all. If you think that love between a transsexual woman and a young man traumatized by being forced to be a homosexual is odd, then you'll find it a problem. When you love someone I don't think it matters if your partner is the same or a different gender, or even a doll as in Noisy Requiem. There shouldn't be any discrimination or prejudice against someone just because of who or what they love, or the nature of their desire, I think.

How did you go about casting for the two main characters in this new film?

I asked Shuji Kashiwabara, who plays the role of Akira Tachibana, to appear in this movie because he has a sad smile. As for Anzu, who plays Kaori Yamamoto, when I first met her I felt intuitively that only she was right for the role. For a start, she actually was a transsexual and had changed her gender, and I'd thought that it would be impossible even for a professional actress to play this role. The other thing is that I felt she had an amazingly strong presence. Of course, she was a complete amateur when it came to acting. However, the atmosphere she creates around her is both very beautiful and compelling. All I had to do with these raw ingredients was to "cook" them. I'm used to "cooking" amateur performers. Most of the cast of Noisy Requiem were amateurs.

Kazuhiro Sano plays in your new film, and in fact has acted in all your films. The name is familiar to overseas fans of Japanese cinema from his status as one of the Four Devils of the pink film, along with Takahisa Zeze, Hisayasu Sato and Toshiki Sato, but I don't think so many people know about his work before he became a pink film director, when he was very much involved in the indie scene. Can you tell me about how you came to meet him, and what qualities he has that makes him so suitable for your films?

I asked Mr. Sano to appear in my "virgin work", my first movie, Rusty Empty Can. At that time, he was a university student, and I was introduced to him by a mutual friend. First time I met him, I thought there was something really sexy about him, so since then he has shown up in all my movies. His contribution to my movies is that he understands what images I am trying to create, and works with me to enhance these images to make a better movie.

I'd been led to believe that you first met him while you were both members of the same filmmaking group, Kyoeisha, led by a certain Sogo Ishii, when he was at Nihon University (Nichidai). Sogo Ishii was the cameraman on your first film. How did you all come together, and do you all keep in touch?

Kyoeisha was a group formed by Sogo Ishii and Ryuji Oya and a number of their university acquaintances who were all big movie fans. I applied to join them when they were recruiting staff through PIA magazine. Then I met them, and we got along smoothly so I became a member. I occasionally meet Ishii-san now. The other members I meet on special occasions. I met some of the members recently when Hiroshi Kobayashi passed away - he was a producer and the chief manager of the Kamiita-Toei movie theatre, and an essential person if you want to talk about Kyoeisha. I was really happy to see them all again.

The state of the Japanese film industry at the time couldn't have been very encouraging for filmmakers, could it? At this time, the major studios had stopped taking on apprentices, and yet at the same time, Nikkatsu remade Sogo Ishii's first 8mm film as a feature in 1978, and you had other new opportunities like the PIA Film Festival, which began in 1977. Can you tell me a little bit about the film scene at the time - how many people were making 8mm films like you guys, and where were you screening them, what sort of reaction did they get, etc. When you began making films, did you even expect to make a career as a filmmaker?

In the 70s, the Japanese movie industry was in a transitional period. The major studios were really just groping around. It was a similar sort of situation to Hollywood when the American New Cinema emerged. Back in those days, quite a lot of jishu eiga filmmakers started screening their movies to the public. It was like a new social or cultural movement. The magazine PIA, which was central to youth culture at that time, responded by establishing the PIA Film Festival.

These 'self-made' independent movies were screened at various places. I was fortunately able to get screenings at movie theatres, but most filmmakers just screened their movies at places such as public halls, college auditoriums and classrooms, open-air screenings, live music venues, cafes and bars, etc. They were screened all over the place. The reactions varied according to the directors and the films, and to the demographics of the audiences; men and women of all ages and different backgrounds and careers. It was all really diverse and interesting. As for my career, of course I decided to live as a filmmaker when I started filmmaking.

You mentioned his name before, but there's another guy credited as working on a number of early Kyoeisha films, Ryuji Oya. I've only seen one film listed that he directed, The Day the Gods Lapsed (Kami no Ochite Kita Hi, 1979), and you are credited as the assistant director on this. Can you tell me a little more about this film, and also what happened to this director?

Ryuji Oya, along with Sogo Ishii, was one of the leaders of Kyoeisha. I heard that he was about to make a movie, so I told him it would be a great pleasure if I could be his assistant director. The Day the Gods Lapsed was produced by Hiroshi Kobayashi, who I mentioned before. Kobayashi-san managed to raise the movie's pre-production budget and pioneered the remarkable feat of getting the movie theaters to produce the movie. Nowadays, Oya-san works for a home entertainments company.

You seem to have been closely associated with Shuji Terayama at the time. What was the nature of this relationship?

I only met Shuji Terayama several times. For me, Terayama is the one single creative person I have reverence for. I only really thought about trying to proceed in this industry after I first saw his movie To Die in the Country (Den-en ni Shisu, 1974). I showed Rusty Empty Can and Pig-Chicken Suicide to Terayama. He really admired the first one, but the latter he dismissed as garbage. I'll never forget what he said to me though, and his words became a great asset to me. I am just very sorry that I wasn't able to show him Noisy Requiem, because he passed away just before I started shooting it.

Can you tell me a little more about your first film Rusty Empty Can (Sabita Kankara, 1979)?

Round about that time (1979), homosexuals were marginalized and discriminated against, especially compared to today. They weren't a visible presence in the public sphere as they now are. I don't see that there is any difference whether your partner is the same gender or a different one to you or not. This was the starting point for the movie, with the emphasis on the fact that the most important thing for any person is to love someone else.

Nonetheless, if I am honest I would say that I myself was a bit prejudiced against gays when I started production on Rusty Empty Can. Yet with every step, from pre-production, though shooting and editing to post-production, I became 100% convinced that there is no difference between whether you have a man or a woman as your partner, as I mentioned before. This narrow view inside me vanished. I feel that I became much thoughtful and humane after this project, so it was very good for me to make it.

The jury at PIA Film Festival that year - Nagisa Oshima, Yoichi Takabayashi, Nobuhiko Obayashi, and Shuji Terayama - were all filmmakers I'd really admired when I was a high school student. Rusty Empty Can played in competition and it was especially singled out for praise. This gave me a tremendous amount of self-confidence about my raison d'etre as a filmmaker.

I've seen Sano's first film he directed, the 8mm Ode to the Earthworm (Mimizu no Uta, 1982), and also his first pink film, Last Bullet (Saigo no Dangan, 1982), which has a similar story to his debut. In these films he seems to play a similar role to that of your first collaboration together with Rusty Empty Can. It seems that you and Sano have quite similar ideas about filmmaking, and very similar ideas you want to explore. Do you think this is true?

Ode to the Earthworm was Sano's first film, and he made it after I made Rusty Empty Can. He's a smart person, so he combined his experiences in making Rusty Empty Can with his own original ideas, and the fruits of this were his own original movie. I've not seen Last Bullet, so I can't say anything about it. I am a little embarrassed that you think Sano's and my approach to filmmaking are similar. I am just making movies about themes and ideas that originate spontaneously from my own feelings. So, I don't really know about Sano's mind-set. I'll leave this up to the viewer's imagination and reception.

picture: scenes from 'The Noisy Requiem'

Your second film, Pig-Chicken Suicide (Tonkei Shinju, 1981), has a great title. Where did you get it from, and how does it relate to the film?

Thank you very much. The title came from my focus on people who are discriminated against. I used "chicken" as a metaphor for infancy and "pig" for adolescence, or emergence into adulthood. I used this chicken and pig metaphor to refer to creatures who are given discriminatory treatment as an analogy to an individual's unfulfilled existence after having progressed from infancy to adulthood.

A lot of your films focus on taboo subjects, like the status of zainichi Koreans in Japan, and also the Emperor's war responsibility. Your films are like the dark underside of the Bubble Economy years. Were there any other directors tackling these sorts of issues at the time, and what kind of reaction did you get to your films?

Certainly, Korean-Japanese people have appeared in most of my movies. The reason for this is that I have had many Korean-Japanese friends since childhood, so this is something very ordinary for me. I have no prejudice towards them, and my portrayal of them is something natural and spontaneous. Pig-Chicken Suicide is the only movie in which I've talked about the Emperor. The audiences are free to think that I am talking about the Emperor's war responsibility, but this wasn't my intention.

You're quite free to think that zainichi and the Emperor are taboos in Japan if you want, but I believe fundamentally that there aren't any taboos in our world. This is especially true for people who engage in creative expression and present their works freely to the public, and this is the importance of our existence for us. I just make movies about what I am honestly thinking or feeling.

I made Pig-Chicken Suicide based on these thoughts. That is, that all humans are the same: the Emperor, zainichi, and Japanese citizens are all equally human beings, and there are no class distinctions between them. There may be difference in races, religions, skin color, and eye color, but fundamentally they are all humankind. This is the point I focused on especially when I made this movie.

The answer for "Were there any directors like me?" is that I think so, but they may have a different way of expressing their feelings or ideas. As to the reaction, well, my movies always cause strong arguments between those for and against.

Noisy Requiem has a very exciting improvisational feel, similar to punk music. Was it challenging to shoot?

I don't like punk music and so because I hardly listen to it, I don't know it well. I don't know if the film was a challenge to make or not. I just wanted to make it, so I made it.

The film makes prominent use of Osaka for its locations. Can you tell me a little more about its settings and the world you portray?

The reason why I chose the Kamagasaki district of Osaka for the location was that I felt that the place had a neglected sort of feel to it, since the characters who appear in the movie are also alienated by society. In these circumstances of ongoing "neglect", each of the characters lives their lives taking pleasure in their own individual way; the beloved mannequin, the younger sister, dwarfism, and the crotch-shaped piece of wood. Each form their love takes deviates from the generally accepted values of society. In other words, they are "abnormal" and "degenerate". The characters' actions are entirely motivated by their expressions for the people and objects they love. These may be unforgivable criminal acts, but I find their direct expressions of love beautiful. I think they behave like this because of their insatiable blind purity.

As an example, a beautiful young man has sex with his sister and kills her. Then he buries her, but he can't stop himself and still has obsessive feelings in his mind. He wants to bury her inside of him by eating her flesh, so he eats her. This is an abnormal and criminal action in terms of public order and morality. However, I feel there's some kind of beauty in his acts. At the end of the movie, the dead sister becomes a ghost, and she tenderly watches her brother playing. Her feeling towards her brother is "Thank you for loving me." So, as a person engaged in creative expression, I would like to think about these questions: "Is the love people in the world have close to or the same as this type of love?", "Is the love you feel something pure or just superficial, something artificial and tatty?" What I am trying to express is that love is something much more vast and profound.

To avoid being misunderstood, I would like to stress that the expressions of love contained within the movie are depicted absolutely as just that: expressions within an artistic production, and in no way as positive affirmations of violence. With this in mind, I'd like to say to your readers please live your life prudently, and with love. Where Are We Going?, Noisy Requiem, Pig-Chicken Suicide, and Rusty Empty Can - all of my movies are about love.

The documentary on the disk follows Sano and some of the other staff members revisiting the locations. It seems to have changed a lot, hasn't it?

In line with the times, I feel.

Obviously you didn't have shooting permits, but there's a scene in the film where you set fire to a rooftop and then came back later to film the fire fighters. This is real guerrilla filmmaking! Did you get in trouble for anything like this?

As far as I heard, nothing happened.

Your producer on this was Takaharu Yasuoka, who was the assistant director on Kazuo Hara's The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On (Yuki Yukite Shingun) and later produced Tatsuya Mori's two films about Aum, A and A2, as well as the Iraq documentary Little Birds. How did he become involved?

I met Yassan (i.e. Yasuoka-san) when he got involved as one of the production staff on Pig-Chicken Suicide. At the time we got along well together because we had many points in common about the type of movies and directors we liked. I asked him to read the script for The Noisy Requiem, and he said "This looks interesting!" That's how he became a part of the movie.

One of the things one notices about The Noisy Requiem is its length. For a low-budget underground film, it has a very epic feel to it. How did you raise funding for the project? Was it all self-financed?

It was fully financed by me and the producer Yasuoka.

Noisy Requiem has a legendary reputation for a 1980s underground cult film. Where did it play, and how did it become such a big success?

It wasn't released for a while after we'd completed it, but we held preview screenings so it became something of a talking point. Also, I showed it to some international film festival programmers. However, not one theatre manager or festival raised their hands and said they wanted to screen it. I'm not sure of their reasons.

This was the situation when Hiroshi Kobayashi, who I mentioned before, introduced me to Takahiro Hosoya, the manager of the Nakano Musashino Hall movie theater in Tokyo. After this I was able to screen it. At the preview, before it opened to the public, the critics and press divided into two factions - those who highly praised the movie and those who rejected it - and this became quite a hot topic. At that time, people focused on the movie's scandalous nature and its challenge to taboos that you mentioned, which were not the points I had originally intended. Still, a lot of people came to the theater to watch it, and it was a relief when many people told me that they realized it was a movie about love. The reason why the movie was so successful was that it was a movie about true love, I think.

I heard it also was very controversial with some audiences. Was the problem with the overall tone of the film, or were there specific scenes that some people didn't like?

I don't really know about that. Movies are completed in their viewers' minds I think, so you'd better ask them.

It's amazing that Noisy Requiem only just came out on DVD in Japan last year, so most people haven't had a chance to see this cult film since it first screened. Since then, it has acquired a legendary status. How do you feel about the film today? Has it attracted a new generation of viewers?

Actually, almost every year for over a decade the movie was screened in theaters in Tokyo and Kyoto. After the theaters closed, we screened it at the college festivals or rented halls; so you could always see it if you really wanted to. Movie theatres are not the only places to screen movies. All you need is a projector and large sheet of white cloth or paper. If you have these things in place, then you have a movie theatre. It's quite an honour though when I hear people say that Noisy Requiem is a legendary film, because so many movies made all over the world have been forgotten or passed by unnoticed by most people. It doesn't matter if we're talking about a new generation or an old one though. People never change as human beings, I think. So please feel free to watch Noisy Requiem and form your own impressions.

I hope it's not going to be another 20 years before you make your next film. Do you have any projects you are working on at the moment?

I hope so too. I'm writing a new screenplay at the moment, which I can't tell you about at the moment. I hope you understand.