- 16 February 2004
by Jasper Sharp
By far the biggest surprise at the Japanese box office last summer, Battlefield Baseball had local audiences rolling in the aisles in stitches - those that could get through the door into the frequently sold-out showings, that is. This exuberant horror/comedy, complete with all-singing-all-dancing musical interludes, is the debut feature of Yudai Yamaguchi, who amongst other things, previously scripted Ryuhei Kitamura's Versus. Jasper Sharp got together with the director to get the full low-down on this bizarre first feature.
Battlefield Baseball seems to have been the surprise runaway success story at this year's box office in Japan. Did you anticipate this at all?
In Japan, comedy programs on TV are of such a high standard that people are not used to going to the cinema to enjoy comedy movies. I was told by many people "you were so lucky to make this kind of crazy film." I also thought I would be very happy if the movie only reached genre moviegoers. However, so many "light users" came to see it at the cinema, and even the theatre owners were surprised to see this kind of audience. But I knew one important thing - that people would only come if I made a good film. I would say that I have been almost overwhelmed by the success.
Battlefield Baseball may be the first ever baseball zombie horror comedy. What gave you the idea?
It came from an original comic. I was very attracted to the central idea, which contains one of the basic rule of a comedy, that you make fun of something authorized or having clear rules. I believe that baseball is a perfect sport to make something funny out of. Besides, people generally know the rules so they knew what I was making fun of. Then I came to the point that zombies came into the story. I wanted to see people saying "This is just too silly! It can't happen!"
Can you tell me a little more about the manga on which the film is based. Which magazine was it published in, how popular was the story, and what sort of readership was it aimed at?
The story was published in a magazine called Shonen Jump, which was the best-selling manga magazine about 7 or 8 years ago. However, it was not accepted by many readers and it was stopped suddenly. After a while, the story was published as a manga book and became a cult success. It is still selling very well. The cartoonist, Man Gataro, is very famous for his other manga books, but most of them use a very unique style of drawing and are very avant-garde, with a surreal sense of humour. Even though he is well-known artist, he has never had much public exposure and has preferred to remain an anonymous, mysterious person. However, he is one of most popular manga artists at present.
I would say that the comic has a lot of originality and the story has a strong impact. Even though it has some murder scenes and brutal images of fighting, there is a charming idea about the whole situation. After you watch it, you're not sure why, but the movie leaves you with a good refreshing feeling...
I also believe that there are no other movies like this. That is why my movie stood out in such a way in the movie industry.
How faithful is your film to the manga?
Since the original manga stopped without a definite ending, I had to come up with an idea for the last half of the story. I showed my ideas to Gataro and he gave us some more creative ideas whilst discussing the story. At the end of day, we gave him a credit as co-scriptwriter. Besides, since it is a comedy film with many jokes, we did not want to repeat them, so we created a lot of new ones for the film. I believe that jokes have to be new and fresh.
The press release for the film mentioned that Teruo Ishii helped create the characters for the film. Is this the same Teruo Ishii who directed the Abashiri Prison and the Joys of Torture film series?
Yes, he is. I believe that he made it to volume 10 in the torture series. The titles I like the most are Porno Period Drama: Bohachi Code of Honor (Poruno Jidai-geki: Bohachi Bushido, 1973), and Tokugawa Tattoo History: Torture Hell (Tokugawa Irezumi-shi: Seme-Jigoku, 1969).
What is his relation to the manga world?
I am not sure about it. I believe that Ishii has made a film based on a manga by Yoshiharu Tsuge.
What exactly was Teruo Ishii's role in the production of the film?
He gave us some advice. For the first draft, there was a scene where you see the main character Megane's house before the title. Ishii told us that any opening scene should be short to start off a good rhythm for the film. So I switched it to the middle of story and it works better than ever. After this I knew that Ishii-san was so right about filmmaking.
How did you meet him?
I was teaching filmmaking at a film school two years ago with Ryuhei Kitamura. Ishii-san was also teaching at the school, so that is how I met him. I showed him the script for Battlefield Baseball and he was very excited to hear about my project. Then he said that "It is a great project. I want to see more movies like this". I gained a lot of confidence from his comments.
What was he like to work with?
He is extremely busy so that I did not work with him, but I respect him a lot. Every word he said means a lot to me.
What does Ishii represent to your generation? Is he well known in Japan?
He is seen as a cult director who makes films that are sexual and grotesque. But I know him through films such as Abashiri Prison and the movies he made with Ken Takakura, and a few other series. I believe that some titles such as The Horror of Malformed Men (Kyofu Kikei Ningen, 1969) and The Executioner (Chokugeki! Jigoku-ken, 1974) are very strong in terms of their impact.
We're used to seeing Tak Sakaguchi in more serious tough guy roles, such as in Ryuhei Kitamura's Versus or Alive. How did he enjoy playing a more comic part?
Tak Sakaguchi has been making independent films for a long time. He has the same sense of humor as me and we worked together on the film from the script stage. He is good looking and has a great taste for action movies, but I noticed that he has something different. I have been working on finding what it is and believe that I learned a lot from his acting. I also know that there are not so many actors who can still manage to look great by doing comedies.
Can you tell me more about your background working with Ryuhei Kitamura? How did you first meet him?
I had made a film with Tak Sakaguchi and Kitamura-san came across it. He asked us to work on Versus, and that is how it all started. Then we came to talk about Battlefield Baseball and Kitamura said to me, "It is a good project but not to my taste. I guess that you should do it".
After a couple of years, he started talking about it very seriously after he made Alive. Without him, it would not have happened, since the project was too crazy and I really appreciate that Kitamura gave me his support in making it.
Do you have any common philosophy or working methods to Kitamura?
Both he and I agreed that it is not true that there are no good action movies in Japan. I also talked to him about making some funny comedies. People keep saying that "comedies never make money in Japan". I found out that I and Kitamura-san watch so many movies and we always believe that "we would like to make movies like them... Yes, we can do it". Having these same kind of crazy ideas bonded us very closely.
What is your next project?
I am now working on another Man Gataro movie. It is an omnibus film consisting of 4 shorts. I am intending to make something different from Battlefield Baseball, and am trying to make it the most popular comedy movie in Japan. Thanks to the success of Battlefield Baseball, there is now finally a genre of "stupid nonsense comedy". I hope that it will become as established a genre as horror films. After that, I do not know yet... My ideal in life would be that I can make a film like Austin Powers, in which I can have that much money to make something really silly...