- 13 December 2010
Of the major filmmakers of the Japanese New Wave, Yoshishige Yoshida (whose name is sometimes transliterated as Kiju Yoshida) remains arguably the least well known in the West, despite recent retrospectives in Europe and North America. That may speak for the fact that his films are often difficult and demanding, and require some historical knowledge and awareness of Japanese society for full appreciation. Nevertheless, their sensual beauty ought to be accessible to any sensitive viewer. And alongside their intellectual depth, Yoshida's finest films display a profound engagement with the emotions of his characters. While Yoshida's films have elicited comparisons with Antonioni, the focus of the two directors may be contrasted: Antonioni focuses on bourgeois characters beset by feelings of sterility and ennui, while Yoshida depicts women possessed by emotions of destructive intensity.
Like Nagisa Oshima and Masahiro Shinoda, Yoshida (b.1933) started out within the studio system at Shochiku, where he served a dutiful apprenticeship in the late 1950s. With the Japanese film industry facing crisis as its audience was sapped by television and changing expectations, the studio hoped to court new viewers by sponsoring innovative films by younger directors. Yoshida, with Oshima and Shinoda, became one of the so-called Shochiku "Nuberu Bagu", or New Wave, making his debut in 1960 with Good-for-Nothing (Rokudenashi). However, by the mid-1960s, he was increasingly dissatisfied by Shochiku's interference with films such as Eighteen Who Cause a Storm (Arashi o Yobu Juhachinin, 1963) and Escape from Japan (Nihon Dasshutsu, 1964).
Leaving Shochiku, Yoshida founded an independent production company, Gendai Eigasha, and realised some of his most personal and profound films, such as Impasse (Hono to Onna, 1966) and The Affair (Joen, 1967). Subsequently, he worked with Japan's leading independent production company, the Art Theatre Guild (ATG), on Eros Plus Massacre (Eros + Gyakusatsu, 1970), arguably his most radical and haunting film. One constant in most of his work both at Shochiku and independently was the presence in leading roles of his wife, the great actress Mariko Okada.
Like Oshima, Yoshida made fewer films from the late 1970s. After Coup d'Etat (Kaigenrei, 1973), he made no features for more than a decade. But he returned with The Promise (Ningen no Yakusoku, 1986), about euthanasia, and a stylised version of Wuthering Heights (Arashigaoka, 1988). After another long hiatus, he made what is to date his last feature, Women in the Mirror (Kagami no Onnatachi, 2002).
Also like Oshima, Yoshida has complemented his filmmaking activities with a rather prolific output as a writer. Since the late 1950s, he has written numerous essays and criticism on a variety of film-related issues, and his 1998 publication Ozu Yasujiro no Han Eiga (translated into English as Ozu's Anti-Cinema) won the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2003.
The first question we would like to ask is about your relationship with the so-called Nouvelle Vague movement. Your name is often mentioned in connection with this movement, but it seems as if you dislike this linkage. Could you please explain why?
Well, when one speaks of modern Japanese cinema, specifically of the 1960s and 1970s, there is no doubt that there was a rise of a real, honest, "epoch making" cinema. I think that this is actually true. It is noticeable in many journalistic writings, in Japan, and also abroad, where, I believe, this cinema became assigned to the distinguished category of the "Japanese Nouvelle Vague". However this is what happens when we try to think historically about a particular time. There may have been a common way of thinking, but the title itself, this term "Nouvelle Vague" was imposed from the outside. This naming was no doubt influenced by the French Nouvelle Vague of the early 60s, after being introduced in Japan, and made it easy for some people to write about the two side by side, as if parts of a new worldwide film movement. Yet, I do not think that it has any important meaning. That is, movements could be groups of people working separately using similar terms or concepts, for instance, politically or thematically, and also could be movements of people working together. There are several different kinds of conditions for referring to something as a movement. In Japan, there were absolutely no such intentions from the side of the filmmakers.
So you mean that at the time, people like you and Oshima, Tamura and so on, when you were meeting and talking, never thought of yourselves as having special qualities which might later be referred to by others as a movement?
We never thought of ourselves as a movement, then or ever. Even though Oshima and myself are probably, more than others, known as the leading members of this Nouvelle Vague, if you ask me about any sort of communication between us, well, we actually had almost no communication with each other at all. One reason for this is that Oshima and I met only by chance. I entered Shochiku in 1955, and Oshima one year earlier in 1954. I was selected to work in the same team as Oshima, and so we met. At the time, as we were both assistant directors, we probably went drinking together from time to time, but philosophically speaking, we had no real communication with each other. I guess that the biggest difference in our personalities originates in our backgrounds. Oshima graduated from The University of Kyoto, where he studied, I believe, at the department of law. It is possible that he wanted to become a politician then. For me it was completely the opposite; while I cannot say that I had no interest in politics, I had absolutely no interest in becoming a politician… Although we did go out drinking a couple of times, it was only because this is what we usually did anyway during this period, since both of us liked drinking. However, it wasn't something that we often did just the two of us, but rather, we drank with the entire filming crew after work. Going with him only was no fun since he was bad when he got drunk.
You just mentioned the crucial influence the university most likely had on Oshima's views, but you also graduated from an outstanding academic institution, The University of Tokyo. How did this fact shape your own views and what made you enter Shochiku on graduation?
When Oshima and I met, I was 22 and he was 23, so it was going to be a few years before we were promoted to the director's chair. During this time I was seriously thinking about going back to school to enter my old department's graduate program. You see, it's not because I liked film that I wanted to make films. I didn't enter Shochiku because I was devoted to films; it was actually my father's recommendation that I do so. It was a very difficult time generally, and specifically for my family, so I realized that the idea of going to graduate school was impossible. Therefore, it was almost by chance that while looking for a job, after graduating from university, and actually wanting to go into graduate school, that entering Shochiku all of a sudden became the only real option for me. The Korean war was ending and Japanese economy had suffered greatly because of that. I had no intention of becoming a film director or working in the film industry, but nevertheless entering Shochiku seemed to be the right thing for me to do. Simply the fact that they had a very good salary system was a good enough reason. They were hiring only eight applicants for the assistant director position then, in 1952, and I entered the company really by chance. When I finally entered I was puzzled. I was not sure whether the cinema was the right place for me or to work or not. I went to discuss my situation with a previous professor of mine, the famous Kazuo Watanabe, and he simply said that for me the option to go back to school was always going to be available, unlike the opportunity to work in film, and therefore I should stay there for a while. I thought that this made a lot of sense, and I decided to stay at Shochiku until I could reach a more financially stable state before considering again going back to university. The problem was, however, that I never thought that I could make the commercial-style films Shochiku made during those years. It is not as if I hated every Japanese movie produced at that time - there were quite a few exceptional films that I did like - but my main cinematic interest was foreign films. So for me, if I had any idea about making films, it was from an entirely different cinematic world view than the one that Shochiku had in mind, and probably not only Shochiku, but in Japan of that time as a whole. That is the reason why as soon as I entered the company, I was also looking for other things to do outside of Shochiku, like writing for magazines, film criticism, and so on.
And you didn't think by then of quitting and focusing on those sorts of activities?
Not really, you see we had a relatively large amount of free time for ourselves back then, so I was able to watch films and to write while working for the studio. After working like that for 5 years, I changed my way of thinking and wanted to write my own script and to film it by myself. Like Oshima, who was given permission to do so before me.
Still, even though you didn't go back to school, you were working alongside your friends from Tokyo University.
Yes, that is correct. First, there was Toshiro Ishido who studied with me at the same department, and with whom I also wrote about literature while still at university. Then we were joined by film critic Suehiro Tanemura, and a future art historian who died too young, Atsushi Miyakawa. The four of us were writing together for one magazine. Well, while I knew Ishido quite well even before entering Tokyo University, since the time we were around 18, I never met Tanemura while at university.
How about Takeshi Tamura, who was also at Tokyo University?
I didn't know him either before entering Shochiku. It was while working for several magazines that we started collaborating for a period of almost two years, writing for magazines and also working on film scenarios.
When exactly did you start working on scenarios?
Already while working as an assistant to Keisuke Kinoshita, I was writing scripts and showing them to him. This was probably around 1956. But this was still secondary to my work as a critic, as opposed to Oshima, for example, who was writing mainly journalistically, about actors and things like that. When he finally started to write more seriously it was about politics. This is another big difference between us, as I have never approved of his views about society and politics and his revolutionary desires, which he thought should take a violent form. Apparently he liked violence. That was a big reason for me to establish a distance from him.
Still, it is striking to see that both you and Oshima, roughly around the same time, left Shochiku to work on your own films outside the studio system.
This was not actually at the same time, and the reasons for each of us to do so were entirely different. When Oshima's Night and Fog in Japan (Nihon no Yoru to Kiri, 1960) was finished, the studio decided to screen it in a double bill with my picture, according to this false notion of the "Japanese Nouvelle Vague". I was totally against the idea. Then the Asanuma Incident [the assassination of socialist party leader Inejiro Asanuma by a 17-year-old right-wing fanatic, Otoya Yamaguchi] took place and Shochiku, for reasons I do not know, stopped the screening. As a result, though again, I am not familiar with the fine details, he decided to quit. For me, however, the situation was different; I was already working on my third film and had the script for my fourth pretty much ready. I was called to the studio's head office after Oshima had resigned, but I told them that Oshima's affairs had nothing to do with mine. Ishido, who wrote Night and Fog in Japan, did leave with Oshima, but I had no intention to do the same thing at that time. Actually I heard about their leaving the company from other people, and not directly from them.
Still, a few years later you were out of Shochiku as well.
Yes, but this was a completely different story from Oshima's. First, while making my pictures for Shochiku, I gradually realized that our ways were diverging from each other. I felt that they were not so enthusiastic about my films anymore, and I thought that my pictures were not exactly normal Shochiku product, and that this was maybe not the best place from me to work on making my films. I was obliged to make films for them, but neither side could have been satisfied. And then, finally, after completing the work on Escape from Japan, they said that they could not accept the film as it was. The president at the time, Shiro Kido, the same man who first gave me the opportunity to direct, asked me: "How about making an action film?" I actually thought once of making an action picture, but my idea of action cinema is that it is inherently sad, and I made Escape from Japan according to that notion.
The last scene in the film is indeed sad, but also somewhat funny.
Well actually, this is not my original last scene. Shochiku, when I was abroad on a trip, cut it out of the film. I was on my honeymoon… Before that, after completing the film, Shochiku told me that it was fine the way it was, but the film you have seen is missing my ending. When I came back to Japan, I was informed upon my arrival at Haneda airport that the film had been changed. My friends and colleagues there could have told me that while I was away, but they kept it a secret because they knew that it would only ruin my trip and that there was nothing I could have done to change the film back. Naturally I resigned from the studio immediately. It was a very serious matter for me.
You didn't even wait until the film was released?
When I came back it had already been released and had played in several movie theatres. So the damage was done.
Didn't you try to fix it later, as they nowadays do with what they call a "Director's cut"?
This is impossible. If they had kept the footage they cut out, it might have been possible; however, Shochiku disposed of it. I am certain that it was all done intentionally in order to make me quit. They knew that if they did something like that, I would be left with no other choice but to resign. I was not the first case at Shochiku, and there were actually a lot of films that were not released at all. Another famous example of Shochiku's aggressive behavior is Kurosawa's The Idiot, from which Shochiku cut more than 30 minutes before its release. You see, Shochiku held all the rights for screenings. There were many directors that had their films cut by Shochiku and didn't resign, but as I was already realizing by that time that I was not satisfied with my work for them, I actually thought that this was a good chance for me to finally leave. I should add that the 1960s were a harsh time for the studios, not just for Shochiku, from which Oshima and myself resigned, but generally. With the popularization of television, the film studios, with the sole exception of Nikkatsu, presumably due the fact that they had Yujiro Ishihara with them, gradually lost power until, by the end of the decade, they faced bankruptcy. This gradual tendency was already in progress when Oshima and I entered the studio, as a sort of gamble that the company took to train and then to let young directors make their own films, hoping that this might attract young audiences. However, again, even though they were promoting this notion of the Japanese "Nouvelle Vague", to say that Oshima and I had any mutual understanding of the cinema, or even had some sort of a manifesto, is absolutely wrong. From time to time I was invited to participate in a conversation or dialogue with Oshima. While Oshima might have said yes, I have always refused such offers.
These offers were during the 60s?
Yes… Well… once or twice when Godard was in Japan and we both were invited, then I didn't refuse, and indeed participated.
But never just the two of you…
Exactly. And as a matter of fact, this was not just the case with Oshima. Even with other people who were also related to this "Nouvelle Vague", people like Masahiro Shinoda, I constantly refused to meet under the banner of that title. In Shinoda's case, I actually barely even talked to him privately. Unlike Oshima, I never worked with or beside Shinoda, and never had the chance to meet him properly.
One thing that is noticeable in your work, especially after leaving Shochiku, and which is quite different from other so-called "Japanese Nouvelle Vague" films, particularly from Shinoda's work, is a strong sense of non-Japaneseness, an obvious inclination towards Europe or European cinema. It's said that Oshima's work is comparable to Godard's and yours to Antonioni's. I am not sure if I agree with that, but what do you think of the comparison?
You see, when someone is asked what defines French cinema, of course there is no answer: film is something made by an individual director. I believe that it is possible to make films according to one stylistic principle, of course, such as the Russian montage movement, or political or other manifestos can guide directors into making a specific brand of cinema. However, as for my own personal case is concerned, I cannot define my work under any one meta-title. I myself was first influenced heavily by pre-war films. I watched them as a kid, and then watching films after the war, I found that watching films as a teenager and then as an adult was an entirely different experience. For example, in my school they used to screen films for us, and I remember vividly the time they showed us Kurosawa's No Regrets for Our Youth (Waga Seishun ni Kui Nashi). It was when I was in my second year at junior high school, where they gathered the entire school to watch it. I remember thinking how manipulative the medium was, thinking that it was impossible to trust film directors. However, there were also films that I liked.
Films that my mother introduced me to, based on Rostand's writings. However, I was never satisfied with the Disney pictures she showed me. Kids usually like these sort of films, Mickey Mouse and so on, right? But there is so much violence there too; violence is prevalent in animation as a whole. At least it was back then, and it made me think that film itself was a dreadful thing. I am, even nowadays, strongly against any sort of violence. That is also why, as a kid and while growing up, I never even dreamt of becoming a film director. I never had any notion of an "ideal film". It might be a normal thing for many people growing up to think after watching a film: "Oh, this is the sort of film I would like to make one day". However, I never, not even once, thought this way.
And yet you are a famous film director today, and you intentionally entered Shochiku.
Yes, but I didn't then have any big plans for the cinema. I was originally intending just to follow the regulations there, as I thought of my job there merely as a small part in an industry, and of their films simply as something that needed to be produced. Then they asked me to write scripts for youth films, so I was trying to do exactly that, to write what I thought of as Shochiku-style psychological scripts. However, and this was a crucial aspect in my work for Shochiku, for me youth is necessarily a destructive force. Or youth is something that is really impossible. The idea that youth is a splendid thing, as they show in commercials, is merely an illusion, this is how I thought then and still, actually, think today.
And this sort of illusion is probably what Shochiku had in mind when they gave you a chance to direct, I would guess…
Definitely, but, nevertheless, I became an anti-Shochiku-style youth film director. And this was my starting point there, and from that point I continued making anti-Shochiku, anti-cinematic, and most of all, anti-commercial films. Needless to say, continuing like this in the long run is impossible. I knew it right from the beginning and always had in mind that every film I made might be my last. This despite the fact that I was "raised" in the Shochiku studio system, working as an assistant director for about nine years, mastering all the different processes of producing and finally even directing films there, according to their systematic production philosophy.
So, leaving gave you for the first time the chance to break completely from their system and to create your own work, as if for the first time.
Exactly, this was Story Written in Water (Mizu de Kakareta Monogatari), but, even though I was able to make the film, the problem was screening it. The theatres were all owned by, or worked solely with, either Shochiku, Nikkatsu or the other studios, so if they had said that they were not willing to screen a certain film, it would have been almost impossible to do so. Fortunately for me, after about 3 months, Nikkatsu agreed finally to screen my film. That is to say, actually, that they bought the rights to screen the film. Therefore, even though they owned the screening rights, I got to keep the original copy and no one was allowed to cut or to do anything to the film as it stood. In this way no one could violate the original picture, while the screening rights, whether in television or even abroad, were theirs.
You just mentioned an interesting topic, concerning screenings abroad. While you were, it seems, influenced by the West, cinematically and culturally, it was rather a long time before your films finally became known in the West. Why is that?
Well, this is not only true of me; I believe that many Japanese directors were introduced quite late to the West. Remarkable, of course, is the case of Ozu, but not only him, even Kurosawa and Mizugochi were not screened straight away. As for me, or the so-called "Japanese Nouvelle Vague", I guess the main event after which we gradually become more familiar in the West was the 1969 Avignon film festival, at least for me as a director associated with that wave. However, it was possible to watch my films even prior to that. For example, Markus Nornes, the famous film scholar, told me that he had seen my earlier films, including even, I think, Good-for-Nothing, almost at the same time that it was screened in Japan, or just a bit later, in a small film theatre in Los Angeles, in the Japanese quarter there. I guess that it was distributed among Japanese communities, in the States, and even in Brazil, in Sao Paulo. That is, in places, as I discovered later, where Shochiku had some connections.
You did, however, shoot one film entirely in Europe, Farewell to the Summer Light (Saraba Natsu no Hikari), in 1968.
Yes. As I said before, I was heavily influenced by European cinema and wanted to work there as well. Especially French film, as I studied French culture and language at university. I liked many pre-war French films very much: the films of Renoir, for example.
How about French films from after the war?
Although there are a few exceptions, like, perhaps, a few films by Jean Cocteau, generally speaking, I did not like post-war French cinema, probably till Godard's time. I preferred films like The Third Man to anything produced in France at that time. If I had to name a director I liked from that time, the American Joseph.L. Mankiewicz would be a good example, or I could mention some of the films made by Rossellini in Italy. When I was in my last year at high school, Italian neo-realism had a major impact on me. The message I got from these films is that a film is not merely a story, but it also has a reflective power. It wasn't a deep or profound way of thinking of films, but rather just impressions I had from the films I liked, nothing more than that. If that had anything, maybe subconsciously, to do with my own films later on, some years after that, I cannot tell. However, going back again to the original question, the two directors who had the biggest influence on me were Bergman and, indeed, Antonioni. It was quite a complicated influence at the beginning since at the background of the directors is strongly Christian, something I couldn't figure out when I first saw their films. Besides, in Bergman's films there is also a unique Scandinavian atmosphere that was impossible for me to fully understand, as an Asian, or as a Japanese.
Be that as it may, Christianity and other cultural aspects in their films are not merely a convention that is followed, but rather matters of an individual expression. For example, themes such as masculinity or womanhood, a portrayal of strong women who boldly endure hardship, through relationships with bad, and sometimes even violent, male partners - this was very appealing to me. This is something I specifically liked in Bergman. As for Antonioni, for him, a film was not merely a story. I know that not just from my own interpretation, but also because I met him personally, and when he was in Japan once we staged a public dialogue. I also wrote a short book about him, which was translated into Italian, and Antonioni himself, after reading it, wrote a commendation of the book that was published in an Italian magazine. After that, we became closer and met several times. Antonioni too completely rejects the notion of film as a story, for him what is most important is the "real image" of the human being, or existence, in Sartre's interpretation of the term. This was, as you know, very important for me too for a long time as the embodiment of true being. However, I don't like the movies Antonioni did outside of Italy, in America and so on. To be honest, I was quite disappointed by these films he made abroad.
I am sure that there are reasons, for good or ill, to regard Antonioni, not simply as an Italian director, but as an international one. Do you think it is right to think of you in this way?
It is hard for me to say something like this about myself, but if someone will or is saying something like this about me I'd be very thankful. That is, there is nothing more desirable for me than having my films screened more widely all over the world, on an international level. However there might be a few problems making this the case.
I guess some of your films might be hard even for Japanese viewers to fully grasp.
Yes, and in several of my films there is an involvement with a few themes that are not really dealt with so often within the context of Japanese cinema, and that would be extremely difficult for a foreigner who is not aware of certain conditions prevalent in Japanese society to understand. One easy example is the issue of discrimination against women. While it is very common, as the subject of many cultural products in the West, I am not so sure if it takes the same form in Japan.
I also believe that some of your films are complex in their content and form. I can't really find one concept that will describe this special complexity, but one option is perhaps the word used by someone who went after you to the same department at your university, Kenzaburo Oe. The word is aimaisa (ambiguity). Another way of regarding your films, might be from a more philosophical point of view, specifically that of Sartre, on whom you focused while at Tokyo University. I am basing my speculation also on a rumor that says that you initially wanted to enter the philosophy department, and not that of French literature. Is there any truth in that?
Yes, you seem to be very well informed. As you also know, I am sure, when one enters the University of Tokyo, the first two years are general, without any focus on one specific topic, and only after that are you requested to choose one. I was, indeed, about to choose philosophy as my major, yet my father was against the idea. You see, things were financially very difficult back then, and my father was afraid that I wouldn't be able to find a job after graduating as a philosophy major. We thought that if I acquired sufficient French language skills, then at least I could work as a mediator between businesses or people in Japan and France, so enrolling into the French literature department was a good compromise. After entering university, I was also working all this time as a private teacher, since my mother had died and I had a younger brother and sister, and had to help out. However, I studied Sartre and wrote my graduation paper on him, focusing on his thought regarding existential theory. So, while Kenzaburo Oe and others who studied at the department were expected to and indeed wrote about Sartre's literature, I was able to do philosophy there.
Nevertheless, it seems as if you never actually gave up on the idea of becoming, well maybe not a philosopher in the strict sense of the word, but a free thinker.
For me, to be a true thinker is to express your thoughts, so whether by means of literature, other writings, theater, or film, a thinker's message could be transmitted to a certain public. This can be done not only logically, but also emotionally and sensually. Striving to find the root of every work of art, is indeed a philosophical endeavor that might end up inciting further thought, but art itself already has that effect. Therefore, I don't like the word philosophy that much. Take for example this line-by-line close reading conducted by the structuralists. It is philosophical, but at the same time it could also be applied to literature and musical works too. The word structure itself in this context is irrelevant; what is to be understood here is the relations between human being and culture, the way our minds express themselves. Film in particular, by its nature, is a thought-provoking cultural product, as it encompasses a large variety of different means of expression - music, images, performance, and narrative - a fact that makes it very intriguing. We can say that without thinking, one can't make a film. It might be changing these days, with people watching films as a hobby, as something purely pleasurable. Like for example what some people that are called eiga otaku are doing, focusing entirely on films, without grasping the larger picture. Of course I cannot say that it is all over with today's cinema, but that is certainly one bad factor in it today.
Indeed, thinking and being thought-provoking is something I regard as essential to your work. I understand the reasons you just gave for what makes the cinema such a complex artistic creation, namely since it encompasses a variety of artistic means of expression in one work, but, you also mention narrative as one of the important means of expression invoked in film, while in your book Henbo no Rinri [tr: Ethics of transfiguration], you are clearly going against the idea that narrative is such an important factor in film. And indeed, in many of your films it seems as if other factors are much more important than the actual story or plot.
Yes, you are right, I am critical of the importance of story when we speak about a specific film, but to actually make a plotless film, this could be thought of only as a fantastic idea. In Japan, most of the films, and literary works too, are based on a narrative or a story. But outside of Japan, as is well known, there were movements, such as German expressionism, and individuals like Rilke, Kafka or Joyce, who were able to shift the focus away from the story. In Japan we were a bit late in this sense and it is important to notice that there are a few dangers in relying solely on the story of a given piece. First there is the problem of trusting too much or even falling for the power of the words. Secondly, there is the false assumption that we have the same experience while watching a picture as while reading a book because we understand the story in a similar way. So for me, a desirable starting point would be the rejection of these notions. Of course I am not the only one in Japan to think this way; we have documentary film makers, and a few novelists like Kobo Abe, who, while somewhat imitative of Kafka, was successful at achieving this aim. For me, the idea of rejecting this centrality of the story in film was probably the notion that brought me into making films by myself.
While I am not sure if it is really relevant or not to your dissatisfaction of the way people regard film as story-driven, but as someone who is interested in aesthetic concepts, I must ask you here about one concept you discuss in your book, one that also might be thought of, next to the structural work, as another way to break from the story in the film. The concept is muzan, and I find it quite difficult to think of a proper translation of it into English. How do you employ this concept into your films, and does it, in fact, have anything to do with the way you wish to break away from the story?
I understand the word in itself, as you would understand the literal meaning of the kanji: something which expresses the impossibility of attaining stability or change for the better. Yes, I believe this is the meaning of the concept that I use. It refers to the people that are being depicted in a given story: the pattern according to which their nature is depicted. For example, a woman is depicted as a very kindhearted person; then she is raped by someone and ends up going crazy at the end and she kills her own child. Let's take this as an example of a story; in this situation we could understand everything, but why had she killed her child? Or even if we say that she kills someone else's child, this break from coherency is the idea of muzan.
I think that maybe this concept is also prevalent in my films. In Mizoguchi you have a case of kindhearted women that are gradually falling into a harsh situation where they, for example, become prostitutes, but this is a bit different. There are many examples of this when women are depicted in films, when they are involved with vicious men. Japanese women are depicted as very strong, as they endure bodily hardship caused by men; this is a very well known phenomenon, isn't it? However, what is the woman's point of view towards this? What are they thinking about all this? They are not depicted as very reflective, because, in the first place, the director is a man, like Mizoguchi, or like the directors of Nikkatsu's Roman Porno films. Although there were also a few woman directors, most of them were men, and this led to a broad depiction of the strong woman who sells her body, who becomes a prostitute, who has sex as an act which expresses her strength. But this is a fictional idea created by these directors.
When I see these pictures I think to myself that there is no way that women actually think that this is an indication of their strength. That is, the idea that female sex is power, and that having sex for them is a means to express this power. And this idea is prevalent in Japanese cinema from Mizoguchi onward to nowadays, it is something we all watch, even young people are exposed to this idea on film. My intention is to criticize this idea. For me making people ask for themselves "why the woman had to kill her own child at the end" is what muzan is all about.
When Japanese people watch Japanese films they are expecting to find the strong sexual women that they have been used to seeing since Mizoguchi and others; this is somewhat comforting, and helps to save a sense of stability in their watching experience. However, when they see something which doesn't quite fit in this setting they are very much surprised and might even be shaken out of the story. This also might incite the audiences to think again about what they have seen on the screen. So when Western film critics watch my films, maybe even Mr. Jacoby here, they might point to this factor in my films that makes them so unusual in Japanese cinema. Muzan is a very good concept, it is not zankoku ("cruelty"). From my point of view prostitution is a manifestation of muzan in reality that could be transmitted back to the audience by the film.
So you mean, basically, that the concept implies a break from the viewer's expectations, since they have no way to predict what the plot might bring on next or why?
Yes exactly. This is a constant in my films from the time I was still working for Shochiku, while making my youth movies, and throughout the latter half of the 60s, after I left the studio, when I worked on my films about sex or women, and even in my political period and still, as I am still alive… even though as you know there was a 13-year gap in my career…
Yes. What was the reason for the gap?
There were a few reasons for that. The first is that while shooting Coup d'Etat I had a big operation in which a tumor was removed from my stomach. They told me that it had to be removed since it was fairly dangerous, and I was forced to delay the shooting. The operation went well and the shooting was completed, but when it was finally over, it was also important to take some time off and to relax in order to let my body fully recover. I spent about five years then abroad, in Europe and other places, and I actually thought that I might never go back to making films again. Then I was invited to Mexico and only after all that time, when I finally got back to Japan, was I free and willing to focus on my next cinematic project, which became The Promise, mainly as I was interested, all of a sudden, in the idea of killing one's own parents and other profound family taboos, like that of incest, even though I had explored that theme partially also in Story Written in Water.
After that, though not really a matter of taboo, in Women in the Mirror I was dealing with something that is for me a sort of taboo, with the issue of the atomic bomb. Many people already dealt with this problem many times before, and people might think of it as an obvious thing, however, for me, in order to deal with this subject one has to know someone who was there at the time. This was a very hard thing for me to do.
I think that in a way you already touched this matter lightly in Farewell to the Summer Light.
Oh yes, you are right.
Anyway, before we run out of time, let's go back to another topic, again to one that has something to do with the so-called Nouvelle Vague, if you don't mind. Another thing that you have in common with Oshima and Shinoda, is that you all married leading actresses.
That is, of course, entirely coincidental. At that time other professional film directors used to get married quite old, around the time they reached 35 or so, mainly because you couldn't get the chance to direct before that, and this would also have financial consequences. However, the three of us got married when we were relatively young, at 26 or 27, as we were given the chance to direct at a much younger age than others.
Another reason is of course that we were all employed by the studio and had plenty of time to meet other employees there. So we met our wives at Shochiku quite naturally. Of course we were not the only couples there; there were many other directors, assistant directors, actors and actresses who got married there. Despite that, I believe that the way each of us worked with his wife on the set was necessarily very different, although I don't really know anything about the relations between Oshima and his wife, or indeed those of any other director.
This leads me straight to our next question, how was it for you working with your wife?
First thing I can say is that, during the shoot, my wife was Okada-san, the same way as it had been before we got married. Moreover, I never told her anything about my work while on set or even prior to the actual shooting, when I was writing the script. When I thought of her as an actress, it was strictly professional.
So while shooting you didn't treat her any differently from any other actress or actor?
Yes, it is much easier that way.
You mean that from the moment you are on set, in a way, she was no longer your wife but the actress Mariko Okada?
That is right. We were not even eating together there, as I had my own working schedule and things I needed to take care of with the other members of the crew, and she was with the other actresses and actors.
You write in your last book about film's involvement with memory, about the possibility of recording memories. It seems as if sometimes, real life and film do come together. In spite of all that, are you claiming that your private life, even though you were working with your wife, never affected your films?
When it comes to the way I think about films in general and about my own films in particular, my relationship with Okada-san had absolutely no effect or influence.
However, when it comes to me as private man, sometimes the two worlds, indeed, can come very close. For example, psychologically; once I had suffered from a long period of exhaustion to an extreme extent. You see, you have many different approaches to artistic creation. Mine is very intimate and demanding; I take part in many of the film's production processes, including adding commentary on the work or even narration, and I keep on making demands of myself never to repeat my work in any way, and trying to bring new things into my work every time. This has been very hard on me on many occasions, and quite naturally it has sometimes made me very tired, and so once, after working that hard for several years, and being in a state of deep mental exhaustion, I actually had to confess to Okada-san about the idea of going as far as committing suicide, when I had thought, even just for a second, about cutting my veins with a razor. Okada-san was, of course, terrified; she hid away all the razors in the house and kept her eyes on me for a long time, till I stopped overworking and stressing myself too much. So you see, we do have a special relationship after all, and I believe that she has an instinctive way of looking after me.
I have just one last and maybe even somewhat rude question. What is the proper reading of your first name, is it Kiju or Yoshishige?
My real name is Yoshishige Yoshida: that is what it says in my passport. The problem is that Yoshishige is a rare reading of the kanji and Kiju is much more common so I figured that it would make everything much easier for many people. It is not the first time I have been asked this question, and actually even when I appear on television from time to time, the people there are always nervous and confused about my name. So when they finally ask me how I want to be presented, I say "Go ahead with Kiju Yoshida." Actually, even for me it is easier to associate the image of the kanji with Kiju rather than Yoshishige, even though it is not the correct reading for my name.