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- Insider's P.O.V
Does it bother you that you’re a director who is often seen to court or welcome controversy?
I’m really a scaredy-cat at heart and want to be loved by everybody. I become a slave to cinema when I’m making films; I forget about those feelings. When creating my main character in the camera, he forces me to make the film in a particular way. I always become very fond of my protagonists, just like a man wanting to do everything for the woman he loves. I’m devoting myself to the main character and that kind of filmmaking is a real pleasure for me. I’ve received a lot of criticism over the years for the violence in my films, but I’m happy to receive it on behalf of the characters who I represent. I’m taking the blame on their behalf.
Lesson of the Evil is only your second screenplay, despite directing over 50 films. Why did you want to adapt this specific novel into a film?
In the novel, Hasumi is a really cruel character. I felt pity for him and wanted to introduce him to the young Japanese kids who don’t read any more. In fact, I became a fan of the character of Hasumi while making the film.
Ichi the Killer was subjected to cuts by the British Board of Film Classification when the film was released in the UK. Do you support censorship in filmmaking or oppose it?
Of course, I do want my audiences around the world to see my films uncut, in the original version that I made. But there’s also an issue of freedom. I have the freedom to make films in my own way as an independent director. But there’s also a freedom on the side of the international audience who have their own views. And censorship is a perspective too. I can’t deny that. It can’t be contested. The freedom to censor my films exists just as I have my own freedom to make them. I’m not so uptight about it because I’ve already made the original films that I wanted to make and the uncut version still exists.
Do you still consider yourself as independent a director as you were at the start of you career?
In Japan, I’m now making films that get wide national releases. But making a big budget film has never been my goal. It’s more that the budget allows me to better myself, it’s a a kind of power, and to introduce my work to more people. I can always go back to making low budget films. It’s the freedom to make a wide range of films that I’m looking for. By making different kinds of films at different budgets, my freedom has widened. At the end of my career, I hope to make a film that will be hated by the entire global community and then rent a small room in Dubai and live the rest of my life here. I’ve just finished shooting a new film that I’m editing now. And I’ll shoot my next film in January. It’s about saving lives rather than taking them.
Quentin Tarantino has cited your films as an influence for Django Unchained and you cast him in the 2007 film Sukiyaki Western Django. What’s your impression of Tarantino as a director?
He’s become a very mainstream person hasn’t he? When he debuted with Reservoir Dogs, his film and his persona was a big shock for me and my film-making friends. He’s an otaku; he’s not coming from the professional industry perspective. He has a really absurd devotion to cinema. That was a surprise for me, that that was even possible for a film-maker. I figured it was too expensive to bring him to Japan as a film director, so I brought him as an actor instead on my film Sukiyaki Western Django. I negotiated his fee personally by myself when visiting the US. Even if I have more money, it’s not my intention to make a film without thorns. An ordinary Japanese film-maker would never think of casting Tarantino. Maintaining that sense of audacity is important. His new film Django Unchained probably has no relation to my own, but I’m looking forward to seeing it.
How did your mentor Imamura Shohei influence you at the beginning of your career?
He was never a person that was interested in teaching technical things, such as how to establish a shot, etc. The best lesson I received from him is that his films can only be made by him. I learnt this through his actions; he never expressed it verbally. I realised that if I wanted to make a film like his, I can’t. But he can’t be me either. I learnt that I have to make films through my own methods with my own characteristics. I learnt this purely through watching him. I can’t become too nervous worrying about what people think of me. I just have to do my own thing. That’s what Imamura taught me.
You’re a professed admirer of Paul Verhoeven’s films. If you had the chance which Verhoeven film would you remake?
I will always take any kind of job that I’ve been commissioned to make. The only project that I wouldn’t accept is a remake of a Verhoeven film. It would be an utter waste of time. It’s something sacred that I just wouldn’t touch. That’s how much I respect him as a director.
You grew up in poverty in Osaka, how has that moulded you?
The whole of Japan was poor at the time, not just Osaka. Japanese people were trying very hard to move up in society and we were full of vitality. During my childhood, my neighbours and I all had different incomes and came from different places. People were moving to the cities from the country at the time, so we had different value systems too. When I look at modern Japan, it has a sense of stability and peace on its surface. That makes me uncomfortable. And there’s a connection with my film today, Lesson of the Evil, because the superficiality of the peacefulness within the classroom is a reflection of Japanese society. It’s not a true peace. And in the film, I express what actually happens when the illusion on the surface begins to fall apart. My childhood is a very important part of me. Although no director can choose our place of birth, it remains at the core of our film-making and always influences us.
There’s been high-profile examples of violence against children that, in some respects, mirror the subject content in Lesson of the Evil. Do you have any ethical concerns with dramatising this kind of violence in cinema?
Yes, I’m aware of recent real-life crimes. In Japan, in recent years, there hasn’t been the incidents of serial-killing that one reads about in Europe or North America. This film is quite different from the mass killings that have been happening there. Those massacres are similar to suicides, done out of a desperation. People are caught up in the murderer’s urge to kill himself. In my film, the teacher Hasumi is different. He has to kill to be himself. The setting of a school classroom may be shared by the real life incidents. But you can’t make a connection between it and with real incidents. As a film-maker I do feel a social responsibility. But if you always fear that you’ll do something wrong, you won’t be able to create anything. You need to take on that courage and receive criticism to continue to make the film you want to make. If there is a coincidence between a film and a real-life incident of violence, then you’ll really be crucified for spilling poison into the world. As a film-maker, if you’re not open to that kind of criticism, you shouldn’t make films. •