Anybody who has even a passing interest in contemporary Japanese cinema, and also happens to wield any form of internet connection, has surely heard of MidnightEye.com, the premier online source for Japanese film info. As a companion feature to HorrorTalk's recent review of Tartan USA's release of Tetsuo : The Ironman, we were granted the privilege to conduct an interview with Tom Mes, editor and founder of MidnightEye, and one of the most renowned Japanese cinema critics in the western world today.
Apart from his work on the MidnightEye website, Tom is also the author of critically acclaimed "Agitator : The Cinema of Takashi Miike", and he co-wrote "The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film" with Jasper Sharp (also an editor on MidnightEye.com). Tom's newest book — "Iron Man : The Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto" — has just been released through FabPress, and can be ordered through their website. Tom also authored numerous articles about Japanese film which appeared in various publications worldwide, and supplied several audio commentaries for DVD releases of recent J-cinema.
Before we roll on with the interview, I would like to thank first and foremost Tom Mes for his time and effort, along with Peter West for the hookup and the chance to do this. Thanks also go to Alien Redrum, Daniel Hirshleifer and Linespalsy, who along with Pete bothered to proofread my questions and added some bits and takes of their own.
HorrorTalk.com: Tom, can you tell us, how did you get into Japanese film in the first place ? Before the DVD revolution broke through, Asian cinema used to be a rather elusive hobby. What was it which made you gain interest in this area?
Tom Mes: I grew up in Rotterdam in Holland, where for a very long time the only way to see Japanese and Asian films was at the Rotterdam Film Festival. I readily admit that I owe a lot to them. I discovered contemporary Japanese film, Takeshi Kitano, Shinya Tsukamoto, etc., through the festival. But my interest in Japanese culture dates from my childhood. I don’t know exactly why, but I was always fascinated with the image of the samurai and the aesthetic of feudal Japan. I remember watching Akira Kurosawa’s films, like Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, when I was about nine.
HT: Your website, midnighteye.com, is renowned as probably the best online source of information about contemporary Japanese cinema, and you also wrote books on the subject. Prior to dedicating yourself to Japanese cinematic output, did you write about mainstream film as well, or was this your first critical venture?
TM: I’ve been writing about film since about 1996, for a variety of media. I started out doing film reviews for a TV channel and later I wrote for a bunch of different magazines in Holland, but also England and the U.S. So I’ve been doing this for nearly ten years now, though for most of that time it was essentially a hobby. Before I decided to specialise in Japanese film I wrote about a wide variety of stuff, from Hollywood movies to Hong Kong actioners and Italian horror. I don’t really make a distinction between mainstream and non-mainstream, it’s about what sparks your interest.
HT: Two of the better received genres in western fan communities are horror and the yakuza film. As a testament to popularity of contemporary Japanese horror, Hollywood studios took up remaking some of its best known efforts. In your opinion, why have Japanese films (and horror films especially) become so successful with western fans ? Do you feel that their popularity is due to Hollywood saturation, or genuine interest?
TM: Something that’s easy to label is also easy to promote, so in that sense genre movies have an advantage. But I feel that the same thing goes for the more arthouse-oriented films that were such a hit at film festivals in the late ’90s. Call it a “movement” and people will sit up to take notice.
The appeal of Japanese films among western audiences in recent years is partly due to what they offer that Hollywood movies don’t: their audacity, their style, their lack of propaganda and political correctness. Their horror movies caught the eye because they fulfilled the basic function of the genre: they were scary. American horror had long been stuck with the idea that blood, gore and killings are what horror is all about, and then something like The Ring comes along and shows the Americans exactly how far they’ve strayed off the path. Sam Raimi said that he felt he had gone back to Horror School when he was watching the original The Grudge.
But Japanese films also show a freedom, an energy, an inventiveness and a diversity that make them great in their own right. Their validity isn’t just limited to their opposition to Hollywood.
HT: What genres and periods of Japanese film are underrepresented in the west, in your opinion ? In other words, what would you like to see get more attention and worthy re-releases?
TM: Anything pre-WWII is vastly underrepresented. It’s some of the greatest stuff to have ever been made in Japan, with people like Hiroshi Shimizu, Teinosuke Kinugasa and Daisuke Ito being among the true greats. There was an enormous variety of material then and a very daring sense of experimentation.
The image we have of Japanese cinema is still far from complete. To stick with what’s been coming through the past few years, much of what we see as representative is actually relatively marginal in Japan itself. All the violent genre movies by people like Takashi Miike and contemplative arthouse fare of the Hirokazu Koreeda variety hardly make a dent at the box office back home. Takeshi Kitano is a huge star on TV, but until Zatoichi his work as a director had always flopped. When it comes to homegrown films, people in Japan prefer to line up for anime, romantic weepies and big-screen spin-offs of their favourite TV series. Not that those represent the best in Japanese cinema, but it would help if more people were aware of that situation. We in the West tend to think that violent yakuza movies are all the Japanese ever watch, which is far from being the case.
HT: Shinya Tsukamoto, whose work is the subject of your newest book “Iron Man”, emerged in the 80’s, which were a barren period for Japanese film industry. His first feature effort — Tetsuo : The Iron Man, in which an ordinary man experiences terrifying mutations — still looks potent and packs the same punch as 20 years ago. Can you tell us what was the original reaction of audiences and critics to Tetsuo?
TM: Tetsuo was essentially a homemade movie, so it was never intended to reach millions. It only opened on a single screen in a Tokyo suburb on its original release and Tsukamoto went there with the film tucked under his arm to personally ask the owner of the theater to show it. What gave the movie its big break was the prize it won at a festival in Italy, which started a buzz back home. A few Japanese critics really loved the film and vocally supported it. Through word-of-mouth, audience numbers gradually grew to sell-out capacity, so they had to add extra screenings. Over the following two years it spread, the movie opened in other cities and was widely shown abroad.
HT:Almost inevitably, Tetsuo reminds a casual viewer of David Lynch’s Eraserhead and David Cronenberg in general (mostly Videodrome). Would you call those comparisons just ? Would you also say that Jan Svankmajer’s work influenced Tsukamoto in some way?
TM: The comparison with Eraserhead is convenient, because they look quite similar: they’re both black and white, nightmarish indie movies set in post-industrial landscapes. But I don’t think it was a direct influence on Tetsuo. Videodrome did directly influence Tsukamoto, he even calls it one of the “fathers” of Tetsuo. I also believe Jan Svankmajer had an influence. The stop-motion scenes with the scrap metal are really similar to Svankmajer’s work.
HT: In the opening credits of Tetsuo, the movie is presented as the first in “regular sized monsters series”. Was this an actual concept which later got abandoned, or just an in-joke?
TM: It wasn’t the first, but the third. The Phantom of Regular Size and The Adventure of Denchu Kozo also open with that same line. It was a concept he was toying with, but when he went off to make Hiruko the Goblin after Tetsuo, Tsukamoto sort of forgot about it. It is pretty significant, though. This whole concept of bringing the idea of the giant Godzilla-type monsters down to human size says a thing or two about Tsukamoto’s self-image and his feelings about growing up amid urban concrete.
HT: Tetsuo is preceded by two shorts, The Adventure of Denchu Kozo (Denchu Kozo No Boken) and The Phantom of Regular Size (Futsu Saizu No Kaijin), the latter especially interesting as it’s a sort of dress rehearsal for Tetsuo. Do you have any idea when will those shorts be available to broader audiences, say, on a DVD with English subtitles?
TM: The Adventure of Denchu Kozo is out on DVD in France and Italy. The Italian DVD from Rarovideo has English subs. I doubt that Tsukamoto will ever allow a release of Phantom of Regular Size. His official filmography starts with Denchu Kozo, and he counts Phantom as being one of his earlier experiments. Maybe he feels it’s too crude to be released.
HT: Whatever happened to Kei Fujiwara, who played the main female role in Tetsuo ? I heard she had a "body horror" of her own in the mid-90s, but other than that, she doesn't seem to appear anywhere?
TM: She runs a restaurant/theater space in Tokyo and still heads her own theater company Organ Vital. She directed the film Organ in 1996, but plans for sequel never got anywhere. When I spoke to her in 2004 she said she had just finished shooting a new film called Ido, but I haven’t heard any updates since.
HT: Of all his films, Tetsuo is the only film Tsukamoto has revisited, with Tetsuo II: Body Hammer. How do you feel about Body Hammer in relation to the original Tetsuo ? Why do you think Tsukamoto felt he needed to revisit that world and those themes ? Is Tetsuo II meant to supplant or complement the original, or perhaps, do you think it was meant to be a dry-run of sorts for Tokyo Fist?
TM: I don’t see Tetsuo II as either a sequel or a remake, but as an evolutionary next step. And Tokyo Fist is the next logical step after that. With Tetsuo II he makes some of the concepts that were only subliminally present in Tetsuo more tangible, and at the same time he develops them into a certain direction. As we’ve seen from Tokyo Fist, that direction meant moving away from SF and cyberpunk. If you look at all the films Tsukamoto has made, there is a very neat, gradual development that runs throughout his films. That’s quite rare for a filmmaker, but I believe it’s thanks to the fact that Tsukamoto operates almost entirely independently.
HT: Do you think Tsukamoto will revisit Tetsuo again sometime in future, either as another sequel or as a remake ? Three years ago in an interview he gave for Midnighteye.com, he mentions the possibility of doing an American version of Tetsuo. Is this still something he is pondering?
TM: Yes, he’s still very much set on doing a Tetsuo III and on incorporating American elements in it. He’s been pondering a whole bunch of possibilities, but if and when he does it, I expect that it will be shot in Japan. If only because that will allow him to work without compromises.
HT: I’m a big Tsukamoto fan myself, and whenever I try to showcase his work to people I tend to give them Tetsuo first and foremost as a sort of litmus test, telling them that seeing and liking that film is 75% of liking Tsukamoto in general. Do you feel that Tetsuo is an essential starting point for a newcomer to Tsukamoto?
TM: Of course Tetsuo is hugely important for Tsukamoto and for understanding what he is all about. If you want to get the full picture of him as an artist, there’s no way around Tetsuo. But I can imagine that not everybody who would like, say, Vital or Gemini would also like Tetsuo. I don’t see why someone who might appreciate one or two of his films should be forced to watch something else too. In the end every film is an entity in itself that has its own life and its own appeal.
HT: Tokyo Fist stands out as one of Tsukamoto’s better known films, and some people described it as “Tetsuo sans metal”. Could you say that Tetsuo, Tokyo Fist and Bullet Ballet make a sort of some loose trilogy — iron, fists, firearms, all bonded together with love as an underlying motif?
TM: If you’re looking for underlying motifs, then you can add a lot more titles to that list than just those three. Tetsuo II and A Snake of June are very close to these films as well, as is Gemini, even though it looks very different. Like I said, the themes in his films have developed very neatly, so in essence all of his films are about the same thing.
HT: With his 1999 effort Gemini, it looked like Tsukamoto shook off Tetsuo-ish visions for good, as that was his most “conventional” film to date. However, in Snake of June, which followed Gemini, there is a couple of clear Tetsuo nods — namely that one scene which reminds me of Tetsuo’s infamous vacuum cleaner sodomy sequence. Was the spectre of Iron Man too large to stay in the shadows?
TM: Well, the original idea for Snake of June dates back to the period when he made Tetsuo, so it comes from a similar mindset. In both cases the imagery you mention has a very symbolic function, representing sexual domination and anxiety. Maybe he couldn’t resist a wink, but I think it functions quite well in the context of A Snake of June. It’s confined to a sequence that is essentially a hallucination, so it’s not meant to be “realistic”.
HT: Tsukamoto’s latest efforts are Vital with Tadanobu Asano and one fifth of an omnibus called Female, also featuring Ryuichi Hiroki of Tokyo Trash Baby fame. What can you tell us about those films, and can we expect broader theatrical distribution for Vital in Europe and the States, after positive critics it harvested on several festivals?
TM: Vital is a film about a young medical student who loses his memory and his girlfriend in a car crash. When he returns to his studies, he realizes that the body on his dissection class table is that of his own girlfriend and that this was her final wish. He then hopes to find the missing pieces of the puzzle by digging into her body. The premise sounds macabre, but the tone of the film is quite different from what you’d expect. Tamamushi, his contribution to Female, is a kind of continuation of A Snake of June, dealing with one woman’s sexuality.
Vital has been bought for several territories, including North America and several European countries, so you can certainly expect to see it at a cinema near you very soon. I don’t know what the fate of Female will be. It only just opened in Japan and hasn’t been shown at any foreign festivals yet.
HT: Do you have any information on Tsukamoto’s future projects ? Is he already committed to some work?
TM: He just finished a 50-minute film that is part of another omnibus, this one commissioned by the Jeonju festival in Korea. It’s called Haze and co-stars Tsukamoto with the leading actress from Tokyo Fist, Kaori Fujii.
HT: Would it be safe to say that if there was no Tsukamoto and Sogo Ishii, there would be no Takashi Miike and Ryuhei Kitamura as we know them today?
TM: Without Tsukamoto and Sogo Ishii, the entire Japanese film landscape would look different today. They are two of the most important names in Japanese film of the past thirty years, men who have broken down many barriers. It’s not just the influence of their style on other filmmakers, or their importance within the genre, but also how they paved the way for the acceptance of independent and amateur filmmaking, and for the international success of Japanese films.
HT: How about Tsukamoto’s influence on the western cinema, is it visible ? Darren Aronofsky, for one, seems like a fan of his work judging from his pictures.
TM: He’s had possibly a bigger effect outside Japan than inside. Aronofsky is clearly influenced by his style, but also people like David Fincher or The Wachowski Brothers: Fight Club and The Matrix are very close to the Tsukamoto universe. Tsui Hark took a major cue from Tetsuo II when he made The Blade, and there is a whole generation of French filmmakers that virtually worship him, including Gaspar Noé, Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Jan Kounen.
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