By Nicholas Vroman and Ken Shima
Translation by Shizuko Masamori
In 2011, Masahiro Kobayashi’s Haru’s Journey, won the Mainichi Award for Best Film. Featuring yet another career defining role by the inimitable Tatsuya Nakadai and a breakout performance by Eri Tokunaga, it was a fitting tribute to Kobayashi’s film artistry. Kobayashi had been working on a singular style and vision of filmmaking on his truly independent oeuvre since his first film, Closing Time, screened at Cannes in 1996. By carving his own way, he was met with hostility from the established Japanese film industry while making a name internationally. With such uncompromising masterpieces as Bashing and The Rebirth he proved his mettle. Haru’s Journey, perhaps his most conservative film, finally won him recognition and a degree of commercial success in Japan.
Now a “respectable” director, we chatted about the long road he took to get there. On a chilly afternoon, we met with Masahiro Kobayashi in a coffee shop near Iidabashi station in Tokyo. It seemed an appropriate place. It was just around the corner from the Kurara theater, one of the last of the old-fashioned pinku film houses left in Tokyo – a basement dive with a particularly seedy appeal. Kobayashi-san was generous with his time and words as we sipped on strong coffee, he chain smoking Golden Bat cigarettes, the classic retro smoke of choice for generations of Bohemians, we attendant on his every word. He was preparing to move to Osaka, so it was nice to catch up with him and spend some time on his old turf.
Q. Could you tell us about your early experience?
K. Ever since I was young, through junior high and high school, I watched movies. I had no idea how to make or shoot them. Along with movie going, I began listening to folk music on the radio late at night. Listening to folk radio I heard songs by Wataru Takada – songs of old-world men, the smell of the world of men.
The Japanese film industry had already fallen into decline at that time and the genres of film were limited to gangster films, pink films and sexploitation films. And then there were big-budget films. Now I think we’re back in the same situation. There were no Japanese films worth seeing. I was captivated by Wataru’s songs, so I started songwriting and singing solo. It was mostly through the lyrics that I thought of expressing myself.
I wanted to be a film director but didn’t know how, so I sang songs. My songwriting was inspired by the world of films, the lyrics coming from stories and images. So, until I was about 22 I was singing, watching mainly foreign films and listening to American folk music.
Q. What about the films in those days? Any that stood out?
K. Japanese films didn’t have a great influence on me, since the films in those days didn’t seem to be so creative. The films by Japanese directors didn’t appeal to me so much. Even the Kurosawa epics – though now I like them – because I felt they were classist. When I was young, I didn’t recognize the so-called masters.
Q. Not even Oshima?
K. Even when he was young, Nagisa Oshima made politically themed works and many a political speech. He was also working at Shochiku. In my opinion, he was a studio director. In Japan there were no nouvelle vague films. He said their involvement in political issues was necessary, while I thought a fundamental change in filmmaking was the French nouvelle vague itself. Even in American cinema, there was the pioneering of location shooting and the handy-camera, and that not highly educated people or junior high school graduates, like Truffaut, were able to make films. I thought that was the genuine nouvelle vague. The Japanese nouvelle vague was only a pretext to bring politics into the movies. Average people didn’t see it. It was merely a topic of conversation. For instance, “Merry Christmas, Mr. Laurence” made Oshima famous at last, not his previous films like “Koshikei” [Death by Hanging] which weren’t made for the public. Films like Truffaut’s “Les quatre cents coups” or Godard’s “À bout de souffle “ weren’t big hits in Japan, but “La nuit américaine” was successful, because it won an Academy Award. At that time I was more involved with the movements of regular people that the Japanese nouvelle vague wasn’t. So I wasn’t interested in those films.
Q. American films?
K. Of the American cinema I love the films by George Roy Hill and Hall Ashby. “Harry and Tonto” and “Cinderella Liberty” are my favorites.
Q. You famously went to France to meet Truffaut – and didn’t. Then you came back to Japan…
K. In those days, I started writing scenarios, similar to Godard’s “Masculin, féminine,” for example. At the beginning, I wrote scenarios with memos, not the way a professional does. I came back in earnest… after being in France for 10 months. I was extremely hungry for Japanese. Also, I never met up with Truffaut. I was collecting a lot of ideas. Nearly every day, I was writing, almost vomiting up scenarios. After returning from Europe I wrote on an almost daily basis.
Q. So, this was about 1980. When did you first start getting your screenplays produced?
K. I never sent my scripts to any producers but applied to screenplay competitions. Various competitions. TV dramas or whatever I found. And I won the Kido Award sponsored by the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan in October of that year. But the film was never made.
Q. And that film was?
K. The title of the screenplay was “Namae no nai kiiroi saru-tachi” (Nameless Yellow Monkeys) and then I started Monkey Town Productions, my production company, to film it, though it still hasn’t been realized.
From the Kido Award I got a lot of opportunities to write TV dramas. I wrote so many scripts. Drama series and soap operas, I must have written a thousand. I worked at several TV stations at first, and then shifted mostly to NHK in the end.
Q. And you also wrote pinku scripts.
K. I wrote scripts mostly for Toshiya Ueno and Toshiki Sato under the pen name of Koichi Kobayashi, which I borrowed from Koichi Yamadera, a film critic, but without permission.
Q. Is this your stage name for music too?
K. I have a stage name, Hiroshi Hayashi, for my music performances. I write it in katakana.
Q. How did you transition from screenwriting to directing?
K. I started my career in screenwriting when I was 22 and have written many dramas for commercial TV stations and NHK since. And when I was 39 I had an offer from NHK to write the scenario of the Taiga-drama, their big budget annual history drama. It had been 10 years, and now with 30 episodes to write, I thought I would be stuck forever as a screenwriter and I wanted to be a director. So I decided to quit. I wrote a story for a play called “Life Lesson.” This theatre piece was a failure. It was a piece for 2 people but… how should I put it? The actors thought it was too risky and stopped coming to rehearsals. That’s when I was 40 – less of a theatre person, still, and from the beginning I wanted to make films. I had some “pinku knowhow” and I called on Toshiyuki Saito to help as production manager and made my first film, “Closing Time,” when I was 41 or 42. As it was, I was still learning. At that time pinku films had about a 5 million yen [$50,000] budgets. So, I tried to make it in one week at the same budget. I paid for everything from what I had saved from script writing. After all the money was spent it came to about 10 million yen. “Closing Time” was entirely self-financed.
Q. How did “Kaizokuban Bootleg Film” come about?
K. In 1997, Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival awarded the 1 million yen Grand Prize to “Closing Time” but I spent almost same amount of money for the party held later. When I started, I considered leaving the filmmaking once and for all but I changed my mind and decided to make next one as soon as possible after I won Grand Prize in Yubari. This is because I wanted to follow the same path as Truffaut, who made “Tirez sur le pianiste” soon after his big hit “Les quatre cents coups”. I needed 5 million yen. But with only about 3 to 3 and half million yen, I made my next film. I thought of making “Kaizokuban Bootleg Film ” the same way as “Tirez sur le pianiste” – black and white, cinemascope, maybe dubbing the sound, but I used synch sound. Making it rough. The final scene in the snow was similar to my ski slope scene.
Q. So how did “Kaizokuban Bootleg Film” do?
K. I felt everything was done and over when “Kaizokuban Bootleg Film” was presented in the “Asian Film Week” program of the Tokyo International Film Festival. So, before Christmas, I sent a VHS of “Bootleg Film” with English subtitles – there were no DVDs then – with a Christmas card to Gilles Jacob, then director of Cannes Film Festival. I had sent “Closing Time” before, receiving a polite letter of rejection. In any case I thought it [Kaizokuban Bootleg Film] would also be turned down. Unexpectedly, I got a call on my birthday, January 6th. Addressing me in French as Monsieur Kobayashi. I thought it must be some kind of donation request to support Africa – maybe from some Algerians. I never thought I would hear from Cannes. I was just about to hang up when I recognized the voice saying congratulations in English – and felicitations or something like that. I realized it was the festival. I could not catch exactly what he said but understood they were going to send me an entry form by fax. I waited for hours – all night – for the entry form. The next morning I got it. So, “Kaizokuban Bootleg Film” was in Cannes. Another film done, I had thought of quitting, but it took me to Cannes, so I had to make another.
Q. And that was?
K. I’d been writing screenplays for pink films so I wanted to shoot just one. That was “1 shuukan aiyoku nikki” [One week lust diary]. It was interesting. It was fun. But here’s a director who went to Cannes making a pink film. Pink film fans were envious. Everyone felt jealous, including other film directors and critics, refusing to judge the film on its own merits. For me, it’s one of my favorite films.
Q. But still, you weren’t having much good response to your films in Japan.
K. I got the cold shoulder because of Cannes. People asked what did you do to get in? How much I paid or how many men I slept with, and so on and so on.
Q. And not only that, your films are different than your average Japanese film.
K. My style is completely different from other directors. Not so much in the process of making films but in my cutting technique and my choice of subjects. And using my own money. It’s unimaginable to me to think that wanting to have a sponsor would allow for any freedom in making a project. So I control the scriptwriting and planning. And the music and casting too. The difference is in being able to handle it all. For several years, while I’d been making my own films, I really couldn’t make any sense of what other [Japanese] filmmakers were trying to do. At one point I was watching dozens of Japanese films. They were almost all the same. I couldn’t figure who was making what film. The difference between their films and mine made me feel I came from a very different world. Between films shown at foreign film festivals and domestically released Japanese films, thematically there’s a completely different feel. It’s been said that the Japanese people would appreciate my films if I were a French director, or that I should make films with a more Japanese feel. But I’m making films about Japanese stories in Japanese.
Q. And it also seems that television is where most filmmakers end up and the look and style of Japanese film is TV oriented.
K. For example, take Isshin Inudou, who directed “Zero no shouten [Zero Focus] and… well, “Joze to tora to sakana-tachi” [Josee, the Tiger and the Fish]. His other films are so similar they’re indistinguishable. From the color feel to the look of the images. Even the stories are all the same. They show no sign of uniqueness. Films invited by overseas film festivals require some individuality, but there’s no real individuality and any film that’s unique isn’t accepted by the industry. If a director’s personality shows through, the Japanese producers system will find it undesirable. Producers in Japan want to handle not only casting, but the entire filmmaking process. Since the old days we [in Japan] have been using the word “kantoku” for “film director” – and it’s a term I really hate. I never use the word, because it’s very vague – we use the same word [kantoku] for the chief at a construction site. Being the foreman at a construction site doesn’t have the same meaning as a film director. Much less, in France. We don’t have people who “realize” here. That’s the big difference. We give this ambiguous word “kantoku” for the director of a film, which sounds nice but doesn’t give any actual authority. I really hate it. Therefore on my films for the credits I use “mise en scène” or “réalisateur” in French.
Q. More like someone who has the vision for the film.
K. Really, the word “kantoku” doesn’t mean “realization” in Japan. They say that’s what it means in Japanese. But, they [kantoku] are merely overseers.
Q. Let’s move on to Aruku hito.
K. “Aruku, hito” is the story of a family, a very old scenario. It was written when I was becoming a screenwriter. It was written three years after my mother passed away. I wrote it as a short script for TV. But it seemed that Ken Ogata got involved, so I rewrote it. It was set in Tokyo originally, but I rewrote it to take place in Hokkaido. Things didn’t work out well between Ken Ogata and me. He had his own idea of how to make the movie but couldn’t figure out what direction I was taking. He would ask, “Sir, so what exactly do you want me to do?” I would reply with “have you seen this kind of approach in French film?” or things like that, but he didn’t have a clue. Having a great [acting] career, in his world he was used to things going his way – and me not knowing traditional film technique, didn’t understand what he was saying. Still, I didn’t back down. I didn’t want to be taken for granted, nor my vision for the film to be put down, so on the set there was a lot of strife.
At Mr. Ogata’s suggestion, the location was changed from Tokyo to Hokkaido but the story was remained the same.
Q. Your films take place either near the sea, or in some snow-covered place. What can you tell us about this?
K. I am not the kind to use metaphors in my films. But thinking about it, when I was a kid, it snowed more often in Tokyo. In spring I would go to a river that ran nearby or visit my uncle’s seaside house in Hayama every summer or go skiing in the mountains in winter. The sea in summer, the mountains in winter, I’ve been pulled to these experiences from an early age. I don’t like the sea in winter. The sea in summer is better. In winter I like snow in the mountains. My sense of déjà vu stimulates something inside me, for sure.
Q. Would ever shoot at the seaside in winter?
K. A winter sea, I’d say no… I’d never use such a scene.
Q. Telephones show up in your films. Any special meanings from this?
K. I don’t like to portray my main characters as people who sever relationships – like a cutting off a phone line. The main characters in my films are always trying to communicate with others, even though they may not communicate well and are sometimes rejected by others – but they try to keep relationships going. Using the phone. “Bashing,” “Ai no yokan” and “Wakaranai” were made with this approach in mind, also showing the feelings of the other side. On the other hand, it might have made the films more confusing. It would be better to follow the first-person point of view. At any rate I sometimes need a third-person perspective. Objectively, I try to get rid of that point of view as much as possible, but I can’t leave it out entirely.
Q. You have a quite documentary feel to many of your films, Bashing in particular.
K. I’m not drawn to documentary directors like Pedro Costa, because both the nouvelle vague and American new cinema, my influences, were mainly entertainment. Fundamentally these so-called documentaries are not very human. Essentially these so-called documentaries aren’t telling human stories. They may be new cinema-like fictions. Whatever, since I’m a screenwriter, I prefer a good story and can’t, even wouldn’t like to become a documentary maker.
I respect the methodology of documentary filmmaking. But these [movies] tend to destroy images. They take already good images and make them bad. I have some kind of aversion toward documentary makers, especially Kazuo Hara. I really don’t like his work. I’ve seen see some of his work, but I’d rather make something different.
Q. What is it about documentaries that bugs you?
K. Documentaries make their subjects targets, steadily cornering them. I can hardly bear to look at them. For example, if someone pointed a camera at me and said, “I’m shooting a documentary” I might do anything. If told to kill somebody I might. I‘m not sure if that’s really documentary. In the end, the director thinks only of manipulating the situation, fueled, I can only imagine, by some kind of bogus threat.
As Truffaut said, making a film depends to a large extent on building up a relationship with the subject, or rather the actor, which to me, I don’t see documentary makers doing. Take for example, Agnès Varda’s documentaries, which I like. She doesn’t do whatever she wants with the subject. Her approach as a director is to inspire her subjects, but it seems filmgoers would rather see provocations. Those people identify with things like that, and I don’t think that’s what I want to do.
So, with these fake TV documentaries that are so popular, I can’t complain much about them because even though they may corner their subjects, they portray ordinary people, rather than actors or personalities, with a degree of moderation because of what they can broadcast. And though they don’t go into much depth and don’t break down the walls between subject and viewer, I’m not so revolted by them.
On the contrary there’re Kazuo Hara’s documentaries, “Yuki yukite shingun” [The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On] and “Zenshin shosetsuka” [A Dedicated Life]. Or “Yasukuni,” a controversial film directed by a Chinese director – the swordsmith was just a normal guy who sharpened swords. Through deliberate editing he was connected with beheadings [in Nanjing]. He sharpened the swords that killed Chinese people, thus he’s responsible. He can’t be responsible for that sort of violence. I couldn’t do anything like that.
Q. So in Japan, there’s an expectation of doing things without question, whether from a documentary filmmaker or from the culture itself.
K. To some extent, it’s like the attitude of a local shrine association. People who are different – whether good or bad – are shunned. Foreigners don’t understand this. I don’t think anything’s changed since I was born. People are bullied for dressing differently, even though the Japanese say there’s not a chance of this happening. So, you go to another country, criticize or even leave the village, you’re out, see. The Japanese movie industry is just like the shrine – you try to do something and you’re ignored or criticized. If you’re an extremely moderate talentless person – in Japan, all the better. If you say anything unexpected or have your own opinion, you won’t get anywhere.
Q. And among the younger generation?
K. In France about 30 years ago, compared to Japan, young people dressed as they liked – they found their own style. Now, go to any country and you have to look just right – even the hairdo. It’s not only in Japan. All over the world people are becoming more conservative.
So I don’t know whether I could make a film like “Bashing” [now].
Q. So, you think things have changed?
K. It feels like we’re going back to the past. Politics are bad, the economy too. From the time I made “Bashing” it seems like we’re in a time similar to my childhood – I was born about 10 years after the war – at least for contemporary adults. The mood is similar. It’s very oppressive.
They say we shouldn’t talk about it. At that time in Tokyo there weren’t that many rules and regulations, although now regulations seem slacker. Though it’s pretty commonplace for people to find the rules rather bothersome.
Q. So, regarding politics and the politics of families…
K. As I said before, I don’t like bringing political stuff into my movies. But when I made “Bashing” I myself found the times completely oppressive. I made a movie called “Flic.” It was very personal and I gave it all I had at that time. After the release, the film played for only one or two weeks and I so wanted to quit filmmaking. I was down for about six months, but I couldn’t quit. I had to make one more film before I could stop. I also thought I would make a very private 8mm video film. That was my excuse. The result was a 35mm movie that was relatively social in theme. Until that time I thought I hadn’t had the opportunity to try that. After “Bashing,” I returned to family stories in “Ai no Yokan”, “Wakaranai ” and “Haru to no tabi” [Haru’s Journey]. “Bashing” has an energy and feel that’s somewhat different.
At this point, I’m considering getting on with more stories of families and what direction I should take them.
Someday, I’d like to take “Wakaranai,” or rather, part 2 and I’d like to see to where another year will have taken it. I’d like to follow up on it with a sequel. Like Truffaut’s “Adventures of Antoine Doinel” I want to follow a single person.
Q. Let’s talk about Haru to no tabi.
K. For me, I think “Haru to no tabi” is a rather conservative film. However, people came to see it. It had famous actors in it too. I’m a conservative man. Being rebellious doesn’t necessarily make one innovative. Being rebellious also doesn’t necessarily mean being antiestablishment, so in most ways the film was not critically accepted or praised at European film festivals. I thought to myself that it was an extremely domestic movie. It was the first time that Japanese filmgoers were pleased with one of my films. And they went to the theaters everywhere. Super! I think that makes it good. But if I say I’m going to make a film similar to it in the future, I don’t know.
Q. Let’s talk a bit about your style. The first thing that comes to mind is repetitive shots from the same angles.
K. It’s like composing music, or maybe singing a song. One sings a folksong with its refrain, uses a similar melody, repeats the same lyrics. That’s also how I make films. I like to push this idea, repeating a refrain to make the rhythm of a film. People’s day-to-day lives are pretty simple. A week or a year, not much changes. Every morning, we go to the bathroom, eat, wash our faces, in pretty much the same way and at the same time. Every once in a while the routine changes. This is what one should show in the movies.
Things like these are amazing. Minor repetitive incidents, gradually lead to a major breakdown. Therefore, I use that sort of compositional strategy.
Q. And your characters eat food with an insatiable hunger. Where does that come from?
K. I got quite sick before making “Bashing.” I should have been getting more calories and not drinking so much. As a result I became quite malnourished. The situation was such that I couldn’t even eat. I felt like dying. I was powerless. Gradually I started eating and thought that I should be proactive and positive about living. So, by eating, various expressions come out. Even without dialogue, I can establish any number of emotional states by showing what people are eating, where they eat and with whom they eat. Enduring anger, sadness and other emotional states can be expressed with scenes of eating.
Q. And how was it working with Nakadai in “Haru to no tabi?”
K. It was great working with Tatsuya Nakadai. I thought he might be the same type as Mr. Ogata, but when shooting ended I thought why hadn’t this happened before. [Nakadai] was a completely different type, someone who lived through the good old days and worked with many famous directors. Connecting with such a great actor, a lot was left unspoken. Whatever I suggested as a director he was absolutely a can-do sort of guy. A great guy and also a person I really respect. For next year, Mr. Nakadai suggested “hurry up and do another film with me, before I’m dead.” He turned 78 last December.
Q. And with Makoto Watanabe in ‘Ai no yokan?’
K. In “Ai no yokan” [The Rebirth] another actor was originally cast in the male role but I replaced him. That actor’s agency wanted me to wait a year for him to prepare for the role. He was nervous because it was a 2-person drama. A year later, he asked me to wait still another year. Waiting for 2 years to make such a small movie, an independent film, shouldn’t be so hard. By then, I thought even with a good actor, I needed someone I had a relationship with. Since the film had no dialogue it couldn’t be staged with someone who didn’t have a feel for it. I could show this actor how to do it, but thought to myself that it might not work. If there was dialogue, it would make it easier for the actor to make the character live. I myself would have a little more permission to collaborate with him. Without dialogue, the film relies mainly on images. I had already written the screenplay, but I wasn’t satisfied with the way things were going, so I thought of abandoning it. But then I thought, I’ll do the role.
I offered a certain gentlewoman the role. So when we spoke about this role, this actress said, “You can be either the director or the opposing player, but not both” and refused the part. Makiko Watanabe was the appropriate age, so I called her at home and told her “I’m actually shooting next week. Do you want in, pal?” She asked who was playing the opposite role and I told her I was and she said “Well…” In the end I sort of trapped her into saying yes. With only two people in the film, it was a delicate balance to perform and direct at the same time.
Q. Though “Bashing” has an empathy with the disappearing blue-collar world. It seems a bit extreme.
K. Consider the household in “Bashing” that the girl finally leaves once and for all. It’s a story that may have never come to light, since the family was more or less isolated, standing alone. This tragedy could happen anywhere in Japan. For people living in close quarters in Tokyo, it may be impossible, but the critics put the film down coolly as a fantasy, saying that in Japan, with such abundance, how could a kid be so alone and hate eating food so much. But if you go to the countryside, folks say it’s not impossible. So living together in the city, especially in Tokyo, it’s difficult to understand the helplessness of living in a small town and why people don’t act to change their situation. Urbanites, people who work in the film industry, office workers, those who only like watching films, for most people, [Bashing] might appear to be a figment of my imagination. But to prove my point in “Wakaranai,” look at children abandoned by parents, kids growing up in institutions – which isn’t good for them – or worse, kids getting in trouble with the law and ending up in reformatories and when released becoming small time yakuza. Watching this film, you can empathize.
Q. There’s a thing you do with the repetitive shots of Yuko walking up to her apartment that shows that kind of empathy – with her routine.
K. I wanted to do the movie using a Hitchcock style of suspense. [Yuko] always goes up the stairs to her room the same way, until she finds her father dead, and then no more. I repeated the scene of her walking up the stairs and entering the room, so that in the final scene, when she walks in and doesn’t find her father, there’s a moment of suspense. So I drew out the scene repeatedly. Though the movie isn’t violent, there’s an invisible violence. This undercurrent of potential violence and suspense builds. Someone living nearby may pose a threat toward the kid. Something could happen. Something could come about, not just something mysterious near the genkan, but something truly dangerous.
After that movie was made – the Iraq war was already going on – I met [the woman Yuko was modeled on]. I invited her to a preview screening when it was completed but she thought it best not to attend. Personally going through a thing like that she didn’t want to become a spokesperson or do any interviews. In my own case, I got I a bashing from the film world. It made me think of what I would do in her place.
Q. Your recent films, though, have characters trying to find home, rather than running away.
K. Still think of “No Direction Home.” It’s the same for Americans – you don’t look back. But we are all looking for home.
Originally published in eigagogo.com, November, 2011