2018년 5월 19일 토요일

Go ahead, draw. It's My Hand-Sharpened 2B or Your Pentel Sharp 0.5mm. BAD GENIUS (2017) Blu Ray Review

Bad Genius ฉลาดเกมส์โกง (Thailand, 2017).  A Jor Kwang Films Production, distributed by Gross Domestic Happiness 559, Limited. 2 hour 10 minutes.  Aspect ratio, 2:35:1. Director: Nattawut Poonpiriya. Screenplay: Nattawut Poonpiriya, Tanida Hantaweewatana, Vasudhorn Piyaromna.  Cinematography: Phaklao Jiraungkoonkun . Editor: Chonlasit Upanigkit.  Music: Hualampong Riddim.

CAST: Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying (Rinrada/Lynn), Chanon Santiatornkul (Thanaphon/Banks), Teeradon Supapunpinyo (Steve Pat), Eisaya Hosuwan (Grace), Thaneth Warakulnokroh (Lynn's Father).




This Thai film has snuck into iTunes and other stateside streaming services without fanfare, but is not receiving the word-of-mouth support it deserves.  No North American or European DVD/Blu Ray seems to be available currently (not even in Germany!) as of today [May 18, 2018], and as far as I know no US or European label has picked it up for the optic media disc market. Which is too bad, as Bad Genius is one of the most ingeniously entertaining Thai films that I have seen in some time.  Uncle Bunmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives this ain't, but neither is it another long-haired-ghost horror opus, nor another muay-thai-fueled martial arts actioner.

The film's poster makes one think that it is a lightweight teen comedy, which might be partly responsible for its under-the-radar status stateside.  True, Bad Genius does exude a degree of sub-MTV, high-school hi-jinks vibe to it, especially in the first half, but you must believe me when I tell you that it subtly morphs right in front of your eyes into a thrilling nail-biter and a caper film, and eventually, I kid you not, a kind of junior film noir (one is reminded of Rian Johnson's Brick, although these movies could not be more different in tone from one another).  No one fires a gun, nor even puff a cigarette (ubiquitous in Korean movies set in high schools!), but the protagonists Lynn and Banks might as well be noir characters stuck in teenager's bodies, half-willingly sucked into the whirlpools of increasingly high-stakes criminal schemes, all the while having to negotiate relationships with their so-called friends/clientele, authority figures (including one's family members) and, in the end, each other, none of whom they can entirely trust.   

This situation would not appear far-fetched in the least, in fact would be instantly recognizable to most Asian viewers, not just the Thai local audience (it was the biggest domestic hit film of 2017, grossing more than $42 million in its initial theatrical run), because they all share the culture of extreme competition for excellence in school grades as well as unrelenting pressure exerted on the children to get into "high-ranking" colleges and universities.  In East and Southeast Asian nations, the academic competition in secondary schools is often so stiff that it has created gargantuan "tutoring" industries that are ironically threatening to dwarf the "normal" educational institutions in the size of money they command (The total expense gobbled up by these "private education" services in South Korea, in 2016 alone, was vertigo-inducing 18 trillion won).  




Lynn is a math genius, an apple in the eye of her former schoolteacher single father. She is transferred to a more prestigious private high school, but extracts full scholarship from the principal by driving a hard bargain. Brilliant, but angry at the economic disparity that puts a select group of students at disadvantage almost at the point of birth, Lynn is befriended by the rich ne'er-do-well Pat and the cute but immature Grace.  When Lynn helps Grace score in a math exam by passing the correct answers written on a pencil eraser, she becomes the go-to person for what appears to be half of the school, who shower her with baht bills so that they could improve their grades.  Pretending to give her clientele piano lessons, Lynn develops musical-note-based codes to relay the answers to the multiple-choice questions to them, resulting in some amusing but unexpectedly suspenseful sequences of a bunch of students trying to decipher her deft finger movements on the school desk, while watched over by ever-suspicious proctors. 

At one point, Lynn is almost busted by her only competitor to the Singaporean international scholarship, "Banks" (I assume this is an English nickname, meant to mock the way Thanaphon, his real name, is tight with money).  She is drawn to his ethical principles as well as his suppressed rage, having grown up in an even less privileged environment than hers, a seedy laundromat managed by his single mother. Unfortunately, like a drug dealer or an assassin in a noir film, Lynn deceives herself that she could retire after one final "big score," with the loot (or, to be precise, money pot) reaching several million baht, many times the annual salary of any respectable middle-class job she could expect to land after graduating with all As. It involves cheating at the STIC (standardized tests for international colleges: sounds like a fictional version of SAT or ACT, in other words, a qualification exam for entering US colleges), making use out of the time lag between one test site (in this case, Sydney, Australia) and another (in Bangkok). And she needs a partner in crime: no one other than Banks could do the job. Will he agree to do it?




The screenplay by director Poonpiriya and two other partners is actually quite clever and impressively character-oriented.  Lynn and Banks are nerdy high school students, but they also behave like special agents in Mission: Impossible movies, carefully practicing their routines to fool the surveying eyes of the adults and coming up with desperate, on-the-spot solutions to sudden, unanticipated obstacles.  Poonpiriya's direction is trendy (overusing slow motion in an ironic mode, for instance) but also very good, staging emotional confrontations and suspense sequences in school corridors and bathrooms with considerable skills.

The best thing about his direction is that he refuses to play dumb kids for laughs, or frame rich friends of Lynn as crass villains (although Pat comes close to being one). As Poonpiriya sees it, these rich kids are just as much victims of their craven parents, as a hilarious but cringe-inducing scene, in which Grace is "bought" by Pat's parents to tag along with him to Boston University, shows.  Moral culpability is extended to all parties, including the Thai school system, the US colleges and testing agencies, even Lynn's father, who grovels at demeaning remarks of the high school principal, in order to put her through the admission.  He initially does not see that such behavior in the name of helping her diminishes himself in her eyes, stoking her resentment about the unfair social system and her desire to cheat it. 



Chuengcharoensukying (known as "Aokbab" in Thailand: I suppose it is not just we non-Thais who flop onto the floor trying to properly remember and pronounce the names of the actors) as Lynn is a real find, a lanky, severe-looking young actress who projects both keen intelligence and the yearning to find an internal moral compass that could guide her actions.  Supporting actors are not quite as powerful, but Aokbab has no trouble carrying the whole picture on her shoulders.  Her best scenes are with Warakulnokroh (apparently a very famous rock singer-DJ-music producer in Thailand whose career goes back to early '80s), as the latter's beguiling if uncomprehending expressions of love and concern gradually melt her icy defenses: it is also to the credit of Poonpiriya that Lynn's father never becomes a preachy moral center of the film (perhaps except at the very end, which feels just a tad tacked-on to get approval from the mainstream viewers).

Bad Genius does not quite work all the time, although its running time does not feel long even at two hours and ten minutes.  At times its slick editing, exaggerated close-ups of the pencil tips and answer sheets and other cool mises-en-scenes threaten to come off as superficial.  There are also a few bizarre touches, such as the ridiculously exaggerated threat embodied by a Sydney STIC exam site's proctor, who looks and growls like Tall Man from Phantasm movies: you expect him at any minute to point to Lynn, squint hard and bellow "Girrrrl!!"  

All in all, nonetheless, Bad Genius is a pleasant surprise, a caper film-slash-film noir that uses its cutthroat school environment to provide plenty of real suspense as well as some powerful character-oriented drama. It handily beats the majority of Asian crime thrillers with pointless (misogynistic) violence and same-'ol macho nihilism masquerading as left-wing critique. Besides, a movie that mercilessly exposes the complete, absurd failure of a Scantron-style multiple choice examination system to evaluate a student's academic (we are not even talking about other more difficult-to-measure qualities such as critical thinking and leadership) abilities can count on my total support anytime.


Blu Ray Presentation:

INFO (South Korea). NTSC, Region Free. Video: Widescreen 2.35:1. Audio: Thai DTS-HD MA 5.1. Subtitles: Korean, English & Chinese. Supplements: Making-of documentary, Theatrical Trailer. YesAsia retail price: $41.99. Street date: April 4, 2018.




Bad Genius is presented in a sparkling HD transfer by the South Korean label INFO, in what I am guessing is based on the HD master supplied by GDH 559.  I have not had a chance to check Taiwan and Hong Kong editions, except that the latter more aggressively markets it as a teen comedy (with the Chinese title "Get-A Special Forces," which, technically speaking, accurately describes the movie…). The South Korean version at least gets the "nail-biting suspense" part right (one of the blurbs on the Blu Ray case, in fact, specifically refers to the Variety review to emphasize that characterization).  

The contrast level is excellent, neither artifacts nor DNR issues declare themselves.  The visual palette is surprisingly gritty and realistic, not as colorful or glamorous as one might expect from other recent Thai films. The DTS-HD sound is suitably energetic.


The South Korean special edition includes a stack of mini-posters and character cards with the young stars posing with hand-signs pointing to numbers from one to four. Unfortunately, the making-of documentary is a standard Sinophone EPK fluff. It at least comes with English subtitles.  The Sydney location gets a lot of coverage, but little background information is given on the real-life high-tech exam-cheating scandals (such as this) that had no doubt inspired the movie, something that a future North American and/or European Blu Ray release should consider including as a supplement.  

2018년 5월 3일 목요일

Hell in the Pacific- Tsukamoto Shin'ya's FIRES ON THE PLAIN (2014) Blu Ray Review

FIRES ON THE PLAIN 野火 (Japan, 2014). A Kaiju Theater Production. 1 hour 27 minutes, Aspect Ratio 1.85:1. Director/Screenplay/Producer/Editor/Cinematography: Tsukamoto Shin'ya 塚本晋也. Costume Design: Okabe Hitomi 岡部仁美. Production Design: MASAKO. Music: Ishikawa Chū 石川忠. Special Effects Makeup: Rikuta Chiharu 陸田千春.   

CAST: Tsukamoto Shin'ya (Tamura), Mori Yūsaku 森優作 (Nagamatsu), Lily Franky ("Old Man" Yasuda), Nakamura Tatsuya 中村達也 (Corporal), Yamamoto Hiroshi 山本浩司(Squad Leader), Yamachi Mamoru 山内まも留(Medical Officer), Nakamura Yūko 中村優子(Tamura's wife). 




Tsukamoto Shin'ya has carved out a significant position as, along with Kitano "Beat" Takeshi, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Miike Takashi and Sono Sion, one of the post-'80s Japanese genre auteurs. These days, he is equally well known for his acting, most recently delivering excellent performances in Martin Scorses's Silence (2016) and Shin Godzilla (2016).  Widely regarded as one of the masters of cyberpunk cinema, Tsukamoto has rigorously pursued the path of a maverick filmmaker, putting together independent projects through his company Kaiju Theater. 

You can be rest assured that a Tsukamoto Shin'ya film will never feature a lame pop tune in lieu of a proper end title music, imposed by a TV company or some such financial powers-that-be, unless it is directly relevant to the film (as was the case with the director's previous film Kotoko [2011], starring Okinawan folk star Cocco).  Nor will it feature some pretty faces from TV or "idol" singer circuit, or include "cute" situations copied from the pages of a "light novel."  However, just because he is making a film close to his heart-- adapting the novel by Ōoka Shōhei while remaining faithful to its devastating depiction of violence, misery and insanity-- and on a subject little to do with his usual SF-fantasy-thriller interests-- the descent into a living hell by the Japanese soldiers in the aftermath of the Battle of Leyte Gulf (1944)-- Tsukamoto has no plans to go "soft" or "easy" on the viewers not familiar with his aggressive-- some might call assaultive-- style of filmmaking.  In other words, Fires on the Plain (previously adapted by the ultra-versatile Ichikawa Kon into an almost equally devastating but much more lyrical and elegiac cinematic version in 1959) is still every inch a Tsukamoto film. Those whose typical idea of a Japanese film is Tampopo or a Studio Ghibli animation feature need to come prepared.  Even those who are used to "cartoonish" violence of a Beat Takeshi-directed Zatoichi (with spurts of CGI-drawn blood) or a Kitamura Ryuhei film might not be ready for the sheer emotional and graphic intensity and unflinching gore to which they will be subject.


As the movie opens to Ishikawa Chū's dissonant musique concrete score, the Japanese soldiers, including the "intellectual" protagonist Tamura (a moving performance by Tsukamoto), have already fallen to the depth of wretchedness. They are caked in inveterate filth, their teeth are falling out and gums are spontaneously bleeding, and they are subsisting on shriveled sticks of yam no bigger than a man's raised index finger.  No one talks about the glory of the Empire or winning the war against the dastardly Anglo-American forces. Everyone seemingly knows that the war is lost, and they reminisce about hometown and their family members in feeble voices, as if they are discussing long forgotten dreams the contents of which need to be painstakingly reconstructed. 

Tamura, afflicted with tuberculosis, is sent back and forth between his squad and the makeshift hospital, which looks more like a slaughterhouse, but his dilemma is rendered moot when the American Air Force blows up the head of the medical officer like a watermelon and razes the hospital with a bomb.  Presently, he is joined by a group of soldiers retreating on foot to Palompon from the Leyte Gulf, and later by the two survivors of the hospital massacre, a wily middle-aged soldier Yasuda (Lily Franky, a.k.a. Nakagawa Masaya, better known as an illustrator-musician) and a young rookie, Nagamatsu, who is an emotional wreck and tethered to Yasuda in a very unhealthy way (Mori Yūsaku).

Compared to Ichikawa's widescreen film that punctuated the abject misery suffered by the soldiers with beauty and grandiosity of the South Pacific landscape, Tsukamoto deliberately heightens the intensity of color and contrast, as if to suggest that in the eyes of the Japanese soldiers these beautiful sights of paradise have turned poisonous and glaring.  The vegetation is too blatantly green: the red and scarlet flowers blooming all over the jungle look positively alien, seemingly beckoning the gazers with a secret, hostile intent: a sun-baked rock immediately boils drops of red blood into raspberry-colored dry stains.  Tamura has only a few moments of respite in the anonymously dark night, when a couple of blue-fluorescent fireflies land in his palm.  Rejected by the natural environment itself as alien invaders, the Japanese soldiers are reduced to the state of the living dead: one lying on the wet ground in a fetal position has fat maggots crawling in and out of his ear, but he jolts Tamura (and the viewers) by verbally responding to the latter's muttered statement, "That is how I will end up eventually."     


Given his propensity as well as his desire to be faithful to the source, it is really not surprising that Tsukamoto films Fires on the Plain as an extreme horror show rather than a war film.   Indeed, some might chafe at the ultra-gory sequence in which the surviving Japanese are gunned down by Americans.  Faces and limbs are torn apart: one booted foot wetly steps on a grey and pink mound of brain matter just ejected from a man's skull, whose lips are still moving as if to protest: and so on. Tsukamoto lingers on the carnage a bit too much, as if to impress on the younger viewer's mind the notion that this is what a soldiering in an exotic foreign country really amounts to. These scenes are so extreme that they become rather theatrical, the cinematic equivalent of a Grand Guignol experience.  We could certainly debate if this type of excessive presentation is the most effective way to convey an anti-war message, although we would be hard pressed not to recognize the aesthetic consistency in Tsukamoto's portrayals of the extremes of human experience, whether a man turning into a metallic cyborg or one being shot to death by machine gun sprays.

Moreover, Tsukamoto refuses to "humanize" his characters by either celebrating heroism of soldiers as Spielberg did in Saving Private Ryan or allowing them to choose death over degeneration into cannibalism or worse, as in the Ichikawa version. Tamura, the observer-protagonist, is certainly not excused of his culpability, and his reaction to a fellow soldier who tries to surrender to the Allied Forces being summarily killed by a Filipino guerrilla clearly shows that his subjective POV is shaped by the moral weight of a terrible murder of a Filipino native he earlier committed.  




Unlike Ichikawa version's elegiac and mournful tone, Tsukamoto's version retains a harsher perspective that never forgets the moral status of the Japanese army as invaders and despoilers of the natural order.  And perhaps this is, after all things are considered, the more "humanistic" version, as Tsukamoto clearly addresses, in his powerful coda, the imprinting of this hell-like war experience on a man's psyche and body: this is not something that an empire can "purge" by re-telling the story of its invasion as soldiers as victims.  In the Ichikawa version the "fire on the plain"-- actually smoke signals by the Filipino civilians or guerrilla fighters-- symbolizes the Heimat, a zone of imaginary peace for Tamura.  Here, it begins as such too, but by the end of the film, the fire ends up illuminating his tormented face from outside his home, blazing as "living memory," that refuses to die out, even today, in 2010s.

Blu Ray Presentation:  1) Third Window Films. Region Free. Video: widescreen 1.85:1, 1080p. Audio: Japanese 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. English subtitles. Supplements: Theatrical trailer, Making -of-documentary, "Fires on the Plain: 20 Years in the Making," audio commentary by Tom Mes. Street date: September 11, 2017. Amazon.uk price: £17.99.   2) Shochiku.  Region A. Video: widescreen 1.85:1, 1080p. Audio: Japanese 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. No subtitles.  Supplements: Theatrical trailer, Making-of-documentary, visual map of the Battle of the Leyte Gulf.  Street date: May 12, 2016. List price: ¥5,076.

In 2016, Shochiku has embarked on a plan to release on Blu Ray better-known films from the Tsukamoto canon, newly remastered in HD, and started off with the newest of the batch, Fires on the Plain. Their transfer is, not surprisingly, state-of-the-art, capturing the high-contrast, aggressively hued look of the digital-lensed motion picture well. The darkness is impressively inky black, and some of the natural landscapes, filmed in Mindanao, Philippines, as well as Hawaii and Okinawa, are preternaturally gorgeous yet strange and foreboding, never picture postcard-pretty. DTS-HD Master Audio also comes across very well, although given the film's low budget, Fires on the Plain is not exactly a demo film for showcasing a three-dimensional ambient soundscape.


I was initially wary of the Third Window Films release not measuring up to the stellar quality of the more expensive Japanese disc (without English subtitles, alas), but thankfully the UK version's transfer (the outer package says it is coded for Region B, but it plays in American machines without any problem) seems to be identical to the Shochiku one.  If anything, the gamma level seems to have been toned down just a miniscule level, so that the UK version in fact is a trifle easier on the eyes.  The colors and lightings of the film in the Japanese version at times appear unnaturally harsh.  I remember the times when Japanese DVDs tended to sport a rather low-contrast, bleary countenance that sometimes rendered dark scenes into a sort of nondescript grey.  But the reverse seems to be the case here.  Third Window's English subtitles are most welcome and appear to be of good quality.

The Third Window edition also carries over roughly one-hour documentary "Fires on the Plain: Twenty Years in Making" from the Japanese edition, which is far superior to the usual EPK stuff.  Tsukamoto, relaxed-looking in a wool cap and sporting salt-and-pepper beards, walks the viewers through the history of the project, from long gestation periods, multiple attempts at initiating the project only to abandon it, mostly due to lack of finance, and the grueling but rewarding production and distribution process.  Speaking in a friendly, soft voice that sounds a bit like a schoolteacher, Tsukamoto nonetheless exudes enormous passion and commitment as he discusses the original novel's life-long impact on his political and artistic views, the lump-in-the-throat moment in which Ōoka's surviving wife finally gave him permission for adaptation over a phone message, the footage of octa- and septuagenarian ex-Imperial Army soldiers regaling him with anecdotes about their wartime experiences, some of which are just as horrible as or even worse than those depicted in the film, and the guerrilla filmmaking necessitated due to the low production cost (at one point, Tsukamoto's crew-- who included many volunteers as well as professionals-- managed to build a life-sized mock-up of an American army truck from repainted cardboard boxes).  It is striking that, even given Tsukamoto's international fame, it was so difficult to raise money for this modestly budgeted project. It is even more amazing-- and moving-- to witness the director's absolute refusal to compromise his film by inserting commercial elements, or hitching a ride on the big theater distribution bandwagon (instead, Tsukamoto personally toured dozens of independent theaters throughout Japan, with the film's release print in tow).   

The UK disc also includes Tom Mes's audio commentary. He propounds on, among other topics, the key differences between the Ichikawa and Tsukamoto versions, a sense of political urgency on Tsukamoto's part that contributed to the latter's determination to make the movie in time for the seventy-year anniversary of Japan's Pacific War defeat, thematic and aesthetic connections between his cyberpunk-inflected genre works and this ostensible World War II film, his approaches to female characters, rundown on the actors who play supporting characters and his musical collaborator Ishikawa Chū (who sadly passed away in 2018, a big personal loss for Tsukamoto), and the downside of his fiercely independent filmmaking style that results in a high turnover rate of his staff (aside from his core collaborators).   

One thing that I found perhaps a bit churlish was Mes's criticism of the reviewers who call Fires on the Plain a "splatter" film or otherwise classify it as horror.  I can see his point, but was it really necessary for him to diss those who write for "trade papers?"  I also beg to differ with his opinion that anyone who tries to make something like the Ichikawa Kon version today would be instantly pegged as a hypocrite: in my view the Ichikawa version is perhaps just as horrific, conceptually at least, as the Tsukamoto version regarding the dehumanizing conditions of a total war.  As a whole, though, this is a very informative and thought-provoking commentary. 


Tsukamoto Shin'ya Interview at Bucheon Fantastic Film Festival, 2015 (Repost)


Tsukamoto Shin'ya (please note that I follow the Japanese way of ordering names, with surname first and given name next: no "Yukio Mishima" in my blog) is a world-renowned Japanese filmmaker, a true maverick, a visionary and one of the pillars of the global cyberpunk cinema as it stands today. His films need little introduction to those who have been following the lineage of cyberpunk cinema or anything at all creative and/or transgressive in terms of popular culture from Japan, but just in case you are not one of them, dear reader, here goes:

Director Tsukamoto, born in 1960, a native of Tokyo, was an early film buff, making 8-mm short films with his childhood friends. After enrolling in the prestigious Nihon University College of Arts, he devoted himself to theatrical production, while earning income and experience as a director of commercial shorts. Tsukamoto soon founded Kaiju Theater, a theatrical troupe/production company that has since served as his base for launching feature film projects. Following a series of fun and quirky short films such as The Adventures of the Electric Pole Kid (1988), Tsukamoto released Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989), a black-and-white mutant monster of a movie starring the director himself and the underground actor/punk musician/erotic cartoonist Taguchi Tomorō. Seen in grubby VHS copies throughout most of the world, the 67-minute long brain-cracker achieved the kind of notoriety seldom attained by the post-Golden Age Japanese filmmakers: the film was outrageous, offensive, disgusting, mind-warping but it was also very obviously a meaningful statement, a motion picture about something, at the very least our new post-industrial condition of being fused into metals, becoming bio-mechanoid/cybernetic creatures-- composed of living organs and shiny machine parts.



Far from one-shot wonder, Tsukamoto has since produced not only the harrowing, apocalyptic sequel to Tetsuo, Tetsuo 2: The Body Hammer (1993), the beautifully lensed neo-noir Bullet Ballet (1998), a ultra-stylized, butoh-inflected adaptation of Edogawa Rampo's iconic horror novel Gemini (1999), a series of daring and haunting explorations into the interface between psyche and bodies including Snake of June (2003), Vital (2004) and Kotoko (2012): and of course, Tokyo Fist (1995), one of the most amazing films I have ever seen about the concomitant allure and terror of physical violence, perhaps my personal favorite among his extraordinary oeuvre. Despite sometimes mind-shattering levels of violence seen in his films, one of the reasons that I find Tsukamoto's films so ultimately moving and life-affirming is his deeply compassionate gaze toward his characters, often lost, damaged and angry, but never apathetic.

I was able to secure approximately 30 minutes of interview time with director Tsukamoto, who was visiting Bucheon as the main guest for a retrospective of his films (it was a rare chance to catch his then-newest film Kotoko, which still remains unavailable as DVD or Blu Ray stateside, as of May 2015). I am very happy to be able to upload it in its entirety here, subject to only a minimal level of editing to enhance intelligibility or eliminate repetitions and redundancies (mostly boring passages of myself explaining certain contexts or sidebar issues to director Tsukamoto). 

Finally, I am happy to note that since the interview director Tsukamoto has completed his eagerly awaited new film, Nobi (Fires on the Plain), a remake of the Ichikawa Kon classic, itself based on the classic anti-war novel by Ōoka Shōhei. It is set to be released domestically on July 25, 2015, and I hope to catch it in Tokyo this summer.

For the record, this interview was originally conducted at Koryo Hotel, Bucheon, South Korea, in July 25, 2013. I would like to thank the organizers and staff of the Bucheon Fantastic Film Festival for providing me with a venue to conduct this interview.

All translations from Japanese into English are by Kyu Hyun Kim unless otherwise indicated. Interview contents are copyrighted to Kyu Hyun Kim: reproduction in parts or in entirety without a proper citation of as well as notification to the interviewer is strictly forbidden. 


Q: Is this your first time in Bucheon and in Korea?
Tsukamoto: Yes, it is my first time in Bucheon but I have been in Korea a couple of times, for Busan and Jeonju Film Festivals. I have visited Busan quite a few times, in fact.

Q: What is your impression of Bucheon?
T: It sort of reminds me of Tokyo.

Q: When I was teaching a course on Japanese Popular Culture at University of California [UC Davis] at one point, I think it was two or three years after I had been appointed there in 1997, I decided to show Tetsuo to my undergraduate students.
T: Oh My. [Laughter]
Q: As you could well imagine, the student reaction was deeply split. Some students, especially female students, were nonplussed. A few of them left the classroom without bothering to see the whole thing. But the ones who remained to the last were, like, "I've never seen anything remotely like it!" or "Oh My God, what have I just seen?! It's a masterpiece!" [Laughter]
T: That movie came out in 1989. It took me two years to complete. Once it came out, it won Grand Prix at Fantafestival, Italy.

Q: What was the reaction to it like in Japan?
T: It was pretty enthusiastic. Many magazines and media outlets wrote about the film, even TV news reported on it.
Q: What was the tenor of reaction, shall we say? Was it focused on the film's innovative features?
T: Yes, that it was a strange, new kind of film, hotly received by the younger generation of filmgoers.

Q: Now that I look back at Tetsuo, I feel that it actually incorporates many classical, or old-fashioned, in a good sense, approaches to filmmaking, including, of course, stop-motion animation. Sometimes it evokes the look or feel of a silent film.
T: Right, the stop-motion effects are old-fashioned in precisely that way. I was shooting for the kind of texture one gets from the German Expressionist cinema. Also influential was the black-and-white Japanese films of yesteryears. After that… perhaps Italian Futurists. Those are visual influences on Tetsuo. It is not entirely new, you know, it does give rise to a sense of déjà vu. It is ultimately a new spin on the sort-of-familiar imagery.

Q: Could you talk about Kaiju Theater?
T: It started out as a theater troupe, but once I moved onto filmmaking on a full scale, it had to function as a production company as well. By the way, "Kaiju" with this set of Chinese characters does not mean "monster" 怪獣 but "sea beast" 海獣.
Q: I have always wondered whether you took it from Mizuki Shigeru's comic book… [There is an episode titled "The Great Sea Beast" in Mizuki's magnum opus comic series, Kitaro of the Graveyard]
T: Yes, yes! I love Mizuki Shigeru. I didn't actually take that name from Kitaro, but I love that kind of imagery.

Q: Is Kaiju Theater mainly a theater troupe that happens to double as a film production company? Or is film production its main business these days?
T: It started out as a theater troupe. The same group of personnel-- staff and actors-- first made The Adventures of the Electric Pole Kid and then Tetsuo: The Iron Man. We have not staged any theater production since then. So we are pretty much committed to cinema, except for a few special occasions. I do feel an itch to try live theater once in a while, though. But we a lot of potential projects for the movies lined up… they inevitably get the nods first.

Q: You have acted in your movies, and in other director's films, quite often as a matter of fact. When David Cronenberg played the villain in Clive Barker's Nightbreed (1990) he said he did it because he wanted to experience the filmmaking process from the other end of the camera. What are your views about yourself as an actor?
T: I have always been an introverted child. Acting in front of other kids during the school was an eye-opening experience for me. It was so enjoyable that it was as if I realized the sky was blue for the first time in my life. So acting is very important for me. Acting for other director's films is as meaningful for me as I do for my own films.
Q: Oh, so you are happiest when you are acting?
T: I wouldn't go that far… acting sometimes makes me tense, and also things can get tough when I cannot quite come up with what is required in a role… but once I have got it right, the sense of release and joy I derive from it is… tremendous.
Q: What is your favorite performance you have given in someone else's project?
T: Oh, there are a few… one that I had a great fun making is Travail (2001: directed by Otani Kentaro). I played the husband of a pro lady Chinese chess player, in a kind of romantic comedy situation. A wonderful experience, it was.



Q: After you have completed Tetsuo, were you consciously trying to expand your filmography into new directions?
T: I wasn't particularly conscious of new directions but I had a lot of ideas, the ideas that covered many different themes as well as genres.
Q: Please allow me to interject my personal views here… I wept my eyeballs out watching Tokyo Fist, it was so touching and amazing.
T: Oh really?
Q: I saw that movie, I think, right after I had married my wife… and the relationship between the protagonist and his girlfriend somehow really spoke to me.
T: That's great.
Q: Can you speak a bit about the depiction of the female protagonist, Hizuru, in Tokyo Fist? It seems that the boxer hero in that film [played by Tsukamoto himself] sees only Hizuru's interior self and no matter how much violence from her he is subject to, he does not change his view about her as a person, to the extent that perhaps he might be seen as a masochist by some viewers.
T: Thank you so much for saying that. Indeed, I had been making films mainly from the male POV, but with Tokyo Fist, I was influenced by the rise of woman's power during that era [early '90s]. I believe that is why Hizuru's character shaped up to become what she is on screen. It was a challenge to create a strong woman character who would be noticed by female viewers.
Q: Tokyo Fist begins with a competition between two macho men, but as the movie progresses, Hizuru becomes stronger…
T: …and men become weaker. I followed my instincts, or "senses," when I was making that film. I think it was the first time in my films that a female character really ended up dominating the whole film.

Q: As for Kotoko, the protagonist is played by Cocco from Okinawa. Was Kotoko's TV-induced terrible delusion of her child being killed some kind of a political statement [about the U.S. military presence in Okinawa]?
T: Ahh, right, you can certainly read it that way, but when I filmed it, it was meant to be a distillation of all the terrifying images we routinely see on TV news. I hated watching world news programs on TV when I was growing up.
Q: You use a lot of extreme close-ups and handheld camera. Are there any difficulties associated with this type of technique?
T: I am most interested in capturing a natural expression of an actor… that is simply the best.
Q: Do you rehearse a lot?
T: You know, digital camera actually allows me to do "filmed rehearsals," which is a luxury. I was not able to do that when I was making movies on film.

Q: Shall we talk about your collaborators? One of the most important ones is of course Ishikawa Chū, your soundtrack composer.
T: I already had some ideas about what kind of music to be used for Tetsuo, largely based on sampling of existing music. So I looked for anyone who could do sampling and editing of music really well. In that process I ran into Mr. Ishikawa. Initially I thought he was a one-note composer, you know, specializing in a certain kind of steel-clanking noises [Laughter], but I soon learned he was able to respond to my requests and thoughts quite creatively. He is a truly versatile composer. 
Q: What are your views of the role music should play in a motion picture?
T: I started out as a visual artist so "picture" is very important but I do not think "picture" is more important than "sound." They are both top priorities. Music in my films is not just added for emotional or other effects. I want the viewers of my movies to experience their music, like they are inside a club listening to a live band.
Q: How about Taguchi Tomorō? Did he debut with Tetsuo?
T: He did act in a couple of films before Tetsuo. But yes, he became closely associated with cinema following that film. Before that he was mostly a punk rocker, a vocalist in a punk band.


 Q: Have you been conscious about the position your films assume within the framework of SF genre?
T: In terms of science fiction films, I must cite Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982). I love both films deeply. As for the science fiction literature, I don't think I have been influenced by them that much. I certainly have not been an avid reader of SF novels.
Q: Do you consider yourself an urbanite?
T: Absolutely. I was born in Tokyo and have grown up in the middle of the city. Actually, I think this fact is the reason that I harbor a desire or a fantasy to escape into the countryside which comes to surface once in a while. Ultimately, though, I am a Tokyoite. I do wish for a bit more of "nature" in my life, but that's probably wishful thinking.


Q: Could you tell me a bit about your impression of Korean cinema?
T: Oh, I think from about ten years ago, Koreans have produced quite a chunk of wonderful films. There are many really interesting ones. Old Boy (2003) was so ambitious and amazing. I loved The Uninvited (2003) too… and of course The Host (2006).
Q: Have you been offered any project from Hollywood?
T: In '90s, there was a lot of talk from the U.S. about inviting me to Hollywood, but since then they seem to have lost interest somewhat. They still bring projects to me once in a while. There has been a talk about doing an American version of Tetsuo, but they could not quite convince me that it could be done right. Maybe a bit more promising was the American version of Nightmare Detective, but that did not pan out either.

Q: What is your next film?
T: I do have a project in development, but funding is always a problem. I have started filming just before coming to Bucheon, based on an idea that I have been nurturing for many years. It is completely different from Kotoko in terms of approach and genre, but there is a thematic connection. It will be a film about Japan's dangerous slide into recognition and acceptance of war.
Q: Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful views and ideas.